WHAT 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 forest."

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.

An 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.



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