Why Bush Gets a Bad Rap On Dirty Air

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As President George W. Bush stood in a Michigan power plant last week defending his record on air pollution, critics cranked up the amperage. Bush is "gutting" clean-air protection, Senator James Jeffords pronounced. Environmental lobbyists asserted that air pollution is rising at runaway levels. Things are so far gone, asserted Senator and presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, that Bush has "the worst environmental record in history." Worse than Genghis Khan!

Yet nothing you hear about worsening air pollution is true.


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Air pollution is declining under Bush, just as it declined under Bill Clinton. With the exception of greenhouse gases, trends in air pollution have been favorable for years or decades. "Aggregate emissions," the sum of air-pollution categories, have fallen 48% since 1970, even though the U.S. population rose 39% during that period Local newscasts have recently begun to emphasize code red and code orange ozone-warning days, making smog seem more prevalent. Yet the overall number of bad-air days has actually been falling steadily. In 2001, there were fewer than half as many air-quality warning days across the country as in 1988. Los Angeles has experienced just one Stage 1 ozone warning in the past five years, an incredible decline. During the 1970s, Los Angeles averaged about 100 Stage 1--alert days per year.

And the Midwestern power-plant emissions that Northeastern commentators constantly depict as a horror? Such emissions are a problem — but a declining problem. Levels of sulfur dioxide (acid rain) from Midwestern power plants have dropped 40% in the past two decades, even as electricity production keeps rising; emissions of nitrogen oxide from Midwestern plants are also declining. At the worst, Bush's recent decision to encourage the modernization of Midwestern power plants will only slow the future rate of decline.

Air pollution can decline as the population rises because antipollution technology keeps getting better and because Clean Air Act controls on cars, power plants and factories have been growing stricter for two decades. Most Clean Air Act enforcement continues to become more strict under Bush.

Misleading reporting and false pessimism about air pollution have a dangerous side effect: they discourage the U.S. from tackling the one air-pollution problem for which trends really are negative — global warming. Greenhouse gases, released mainly by the burning of fossil fuels, are accumulating in the atmosphere, and seem likely to cause long-term climate change. The scientific case for regulating greenhouse gases gets stronger every year.

If voters incorrectly believe that smog and acid rain are running wild, they will want attention focused on those short-term priorities. If voters understand that all regular forms of air pollution are in decline anyway, they may support shifting the spotlight to greenhouse gases, where the danger is. And voters — as well as environmental pessimists — also need to know this: all air-pollution initiatives to date, such as tailpipe controls on cars, have been cheaper and more effective than predicted. This gives us reason to be optimistic that global-warming controls will be affordable and effective too. By pretending that air-pollution trends are negative, opponents of the President only reduce momentum for the next great environmental-protection project, greenhouse reform.

The one big weakness in Bush's environmental performance in office is his failure to propose substantial action against global warming. But politically, why should he? White House advisers see that Bush's opponents are already savaging him with false claims that regular air pollution is getting worse. They know that if Bush proposed a substantive global-warming plan, his opponents would only bash away at that too. It's critical that Democrats stop distorting the Bush air-pollution record, and that voters understand that all trends in regular air pollution are positive. Knowing this should give us the courage to take on the Super Bowl of environmental problems: the greenhouse effect.

Easterbrook's new book, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, will be published in December