IS THE ENVIRONMENTAL STATE OF THE UNION?
by Whit Gibbons
February 3, 2003
Like millions of Americans, I watched President Bush deliver the State
of the Union message January 28. Although concerned about our prospects
for war, I also looked forward to hearing the president's comments on
and tangible evidence of support for the environment. Being a scientist,
I recorded some data while the president spoke.
The word "environmental" was first used in a sentence that
began with word number 1,174 of a 5,433-word speech. By my kitchen clock,
this was about 15 minutes into the 48-minute speech. After delivering
264 words on the environment, the president moved on to other topics.
The environmental discussion consumed about 3 minutes, but my kitchen
clock is the old-fashioned kind with hands rather than a digital display,
so it may have been closer to 2 minutes or 4. However, using the accuracy
of the word count, the topic of the environment constituted slightly
under 5 percent of the talk. For those of you reaching for your calculators,
the exact percentage was 4.86 percent.
The environment represented one of the president's four national "goals"
set by his administration: "Our third goal is to promote energy
independence for our country, while dramatically improving the environment."
He immediately presented two of his environmental program plans, the
"Clear Skies legislation that mandates a 70 percent cut in air
pollution from power plants over the next 15 years," and the "Healthy
Forests Initiative, to help prevent the catastrophic fires that devastate
communities, kill wildlife, and burn away millions of acres of treasured
Now I feel certain that President Bush is aware of the use of rhetoric
in pushing programs and understands that calling skies "clear"
and forests "healthy" does not necessarily make them so. An
environmental cynic might even be looking for ways in which commercial
interests are being served rather than the skies and forests. To avoid
unjust criticism, surely President Bush will turn toward the many ecologists
and environmentalists around the country to critique these plans for
our skies and forests in advance. A careful look at the plans by all
of us will certainly be in order as Congress deliberates how best to
help us--and the environment.
President Bush's other environmental emphasis came when he proposed
"$1.2 billion in research funding so that America can lead the
world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles." This
is a concept with great promise. Power from hydrogen fuel cells soars
above that from conventional fossil fuels by minimizing atmospheric
pollution, the primary by-product of the process being water. Plus,
we don't have to leave a room to find hydrogen, let alone destroy wild
habitats by drilling for oil. BMW, Honda, and Mercedes-Benz already
have hydrogen-powered test cars on the road.
Interestingly, in a word search of the speech, the words "oil"and
"gasoline" did not appear, nor even the term "fossil
fuel." Was this an oversight on the president's part? Clearly if
we are to promote one type of energy, we should mention the ones we
will be diminishing the use of and no longer promoting. In a search
for good rhetoric, we must look not only for what is said that has no
substance or is superficial but also what is not said.
environmental extremist might say that the way to be sure Americans
are supportive of hydrogen-powered automobiles rather than gasoline-powered
ones is to ensure that the latter are heavily taxed, regulated, and
not subsidized in any way. Also, some will ask why the president did
not promote further research on solar energy, which has already been
shown to be an effective power source for automobiles. Or how about
tax breaks for hydrogen-power users and tax penalties for using fossil
fuels? The environmental cynic might also be suspicious enough to ask:
for every $1.2 billion of government dollars provided in support of
developing hydrogen power, will $1.2 trillion be used to subsidize and
support fossil fuel interests? Or does this mean we don' t have to worry
any more about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?
The president probably did not have time to mention these aspects of
his plan, so I am still looking forward to hearing his comments on and
tangible evidence of support for the environment.
If you have an environmental question or comment, email