Offsetting Bush's Green Legacy: Advice for No. 44

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Paul J. Richards / AFP / Getty

US President George W. Bush

There is no shortage of people eager to see President George W. Bush hit the road — his approval rating hovers at 25% — but few will celebrate the end of the Bush era more than environmentalists.

From the green perspective, the Bush Administration has been an unmitigated disaster, with sins of omission (the failure to do anything significant on climate change) and commission (stealthy attempts to weaken environmental protections such as the Endangered Species Act). For Bush's successor, that legacy means having to play catch-up starting Jan. 20 on a dusty list of green issues; to name a few: national action on capping carbon, reengaging with the United Nations climate change treaty process, America's addiction to foreign oil, water shortages in the Southwest and accelerated species loss.

But the most important task on that to-do list is simple: Don't be George W. Bush. At a time when climate change forced the rest of the world to pay more attention to the environment than ever before, Bush went AWOL. "I think the most important opportunity for the new leader is simply to be a leader," says Mark Tercek, the president of the Nature Conservancy, one of the most influential environmental organizations in the world. "We need a President who will help the American people understand that investment in the environment is necessary and not a burden." (Listen to Tercek talk about the new Administration's environmental priorities on this week's Greencast.)

Granted, that's a tough task considering that the ongoing economic crisis — not to mention the two unending wars — will dominate the national agenda. Certain green issues, like energy, are tied into the downturn and will naturally be addressed. (Indeed, Sen. Obama — who has pledged to spend $150 billion on clean energy — has said the issue would be the first on his to-do list.) But Tercek believes the key for the new President will lie in persuading Americans that the environment is not a partisan issue.

In the past, it wasn't — after all it was Richard Nixon who created the Environmental Protection Agency (albeit grudgingly), and supporters of conservation could be regularly found on both sides of the aisle. But the debate over global warming — which often takes the form of a religious debate, depending on what one "believes" — is markedly partisan. The new American Climate Values Survey, commissioned by environmental groups, found that only half of Republicans think global warming is real, compared to 90% of all Democrats. "Americans have to understand that this is not a partisan or political issue," says Tercek. "We need a leader who can start that."

It doesn't help that President Bush seems bent on dismantling as many of the nation's environmental regulations as possible before his time runs out. With less than three months to go, the White House is looking to tweak regulations that will make mountaintop mining easier, ease catch limits for certain kinds of fish, lighten the regulation of drinking water and potentially allow power plants to emit more greenhouse gases. "We already know this Administration has a deep, unwavering ideology of deregulation," said Representative Edward Markey, the chairman of the select committee on energy independence and global warming. "With scant time left, there's no reason to think they'll stop deregulating now." The new Administration could reverse many of these changes, but doing so will take precious time and effort.

The new President will be faced immediately with the U.N.'s annual climate change summit, which occurs this December in Poland before he takes office. Still, the best way to signal both to the U.S. and the rest of the world that the White House is getting greener would be to send a high-level delegation along — or even stop by himself. It's important to realize that much of the rest of the world's disdain for America originates in Bush's apparent contempt for international climate action, first indicated by his withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol process not long after taking office. Changing that attitude — even if real progress doesn't happen immediately, which it won't — would go a long way toward repairing America's image in the world. "The world needs to see the U.S. engage here," says Tercek.

Of course, true international action on climate change will require strong support at home — and it's not clear that exists yet. (Bush gets the blame for ditching Kyoto, but don't forget that the Senate in 1997 voted 95-0 that the U.S. shouldn't sign onto the protocol in its finished form, and President Bill Clinton never brought the treaty to Congress.) It'll be up to the next President — with the help of a somewhat greener Congress — to change that, even as he copes with a hemorrhaging economy. But there's one bright side for President 44: He doesn't have much to live up to.

See TIME's special report on the environment.

See pictures of trees and the environment.