“America has need of idealism and courage, because we have essential work at home–the unfinished work of American freedom. In a world moving toward liberty, we are determined to show the meaning and promise of liberty.”
– President George W. Bush (Second Inaugural Address)

As George W. Bush begins his second term as President, there are many challenging tasks confronting his Administration.  From complications arising from the War in Iraq and the ongoing War on Terror to the newfound effort at overhauling Social Security, there is clearly much on the table to occupy his attention.  Regrettably, however, there appears to be at least one area that is not receiving much focus – at least to this point – and that is the issue of the environment.  With Republicans securing historic gains in both houses of Congress, the opportunity to tackle some long-standing issues and help change the direction of the current environmental debate is one that is well within the President’s grasp.  The question is, will his Administration have the “idealism and courage,” as he iterated in his inaugural speech, to take it?

If history is any guide, the window of opportunity for action will probably last for two years as the party “out of power” will likely make gains during the interim election.  This provides Bush plenty of time, but his political capital must be focused and applied vigorously if the inertia that has deadlocked several important issues is to be moved.  A proper prioritizing and elevating of several key items will help the Bush Administration make the case that it is serious about tackling the issue of the environment–and if applied wisely may yet remove this issue as a blot on its legacy for those looking back in the future.

Among the issues upon which the President can act to make a difference include:

The Hydrogen Initiative   In his 2003 State of the Union speech, President Bush announced a $1.2 billion initiative to develop technology for “commercially viable hydrogen-powered fuel cells to power cars, trucks, homes and businesses with no pollution or greenhouse gases.”  Since that time, some progress has been made, but obviously America is still in the infancy stages of transforming to a hydrogen economy.  Feeding off this Washington initiative, states such as California and Florida are beginning to develop their own programs to promote the use of hydrogen fuels, and Detroit has also responded positively to the President’s initiative.   Perhaps most impressive has been the response of the global community with the creation of the International Partnerships for the Hydrogen Economy, a coalition forged by the Bush Administration which now boasts some 15 countries all committed to organizing and implementing “effective, efficient, and focused international research, development, demonstration and commercial utilization activities related to hydrogen and fuel cell technologies.”   Such aggressive peddling by the Administration must continue over the next four years, however, as the obstacles which remain to be overcome are still great.  Hydrogen fuel costs about four times more to produce than gasoline and the fuel cells used to power motor vehicles are still ten times more expensive than the internal combustible engine.  Infrastructure and storage issues also remain huge problems, and the President must sell Congress on the need to stay the course, which means continuing to provide adequate funding, or this whole effort may quickly flop.

Climate Change   When the President refused to support the Kyoto Treaty during his first term, he risked a lot of political capital and endured the indignation of many nations.  Having been returned to office by the American people, however, President Bush now has an excellent opportunity to reshape this issue into a political plus for both himself and his party.  This can be done by promoting a more sensible agenda, or creating a “win-win” solution, that addresses both the fears surrounding climate change and those about job losses simultaneously.  The President’s hydrogen fuel initiative, of course, is one excellent way out of this dilemma.  A strength of this initiative is that it doesn’t seek to eliminate the use of fossil fuels–it merely redirects them.  Hydrogen fuel can be created using coal and natural gas, thus retaining those industries and jobs as an important part of the national economy.  Another challenge will be to advance the continued use of fossil fuels without furthering additional fears of catastrophic climate change–which might well be accomplished through the carbon sequestration program currently underway at the Department of Energy.  Ensuring that projects like Futuregen, which is the world’s first commercially operated coal plant with zero emissions, are off and running will not only demonstrate that fossil fuel energy is environmentally sound, but will create a new paradigm wherein treaties like Kyoto may soon become passe and obsolete.  Tackling climate change through technology will also no doubt ameliorate the angst of some who remain uncomfortable with the controversial path the Administration has taken on this issue.

Endangered Species Act reform   Since its inception in 1973, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has enjoyed widespread support among the American people.  Unfortunately, while its goals have been popular and laudable, its track record has proven anything but successful.  Of the 1,304 species that have been listed on the ESA, only 4 have ever been successfully recovered and removed from the list.  That’s considerably less than one percent.  Worse, only 30 percent of the listed species are considered in “stable” condition and a mere 9 percent are considered improving.  The time for reforming the ESA cannot be more pressing, especially as there are another 257 species already on the candidate list.  The problems surrounding ESA are myriad, and run the gamut of too much litigation, a lack of defined scientific standards, and the inherent, perverse incentives in the Act which do not advance the potential of private stewardship.   Congressman Richard Pombo, who recently resumed chairmanship of the House Resources Committee, has made ESA reform a high priority in the new Congress.  The Administration would do well to lend its support to his efforts and provide whatever assistance it can to ensure this Act is strengthened and reformulated to carry out its important mission.

ANWR   The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been a major point of contention between those concerned about wilderness protection and those worried about America’s growing dependence on foreign sources of oil. The refuge covers about 19 million acres, an area roughly the size of South Carolina, and is home to some important species such as Porcupine Caribou, muskoxen and polar bears.  While environmental concerns are certainly warranted, the facts reveal that oil recovery and wildlife protection are not mutually exclusive–in other words drilling can and should be done in an environmentally sound manner.  The amount of oil recovery allowed under proposed legislation would be fairly limited, and what is allowed to be drilled must be done so more intelligently than with earlier incursions. Of the 19 million acres in the refuge, only 1.5 million is open to exploration, but the actual drilling would be done on barely a tenth of a percent of that–or about 2,000 acres. New drilling technology makes it possible to build drill pads that are a fourth as large as those required in the 70’s and spaced at intervals four times as far apart.  The likely environmental impact is very small, but the benefits are certain to be substantial.  Experts believe there is anywhere from 6-16 billion barrels of oil recoverable in the region–roughly the same amount we import from Saudi Arabia over 30 years.  The last Senate ballot on the ANWR measure fell short by a mere 4 votes.  Thus, with some needling by the Administration and a more solid majority in the upper chamber to work with, achieving a majority is well within reach.

Eco-Imperialism   On the international level, the Bush Administration has made overtures to help those in developing countries secure better lives.  This was done ostensibly in Afghanistan and Iraq with their liberation, providing relief to the victims of the tsunami in Asia, as well as the ongoing commitment to tackle the scourge of AIDS in Africa.  While these efforts are indeed noble and likely to gain us favor (maybe over time) with many in the developing world, it would also be worthwhile for the President to examine environmental policies as a means to bolster U.S. international standing.

Roughly one million children and another million pregnant women die from malaria each year, for example, a tragedy that could well be brought under control if the controlled use of DDT was encouraged by the U.S. and utilized by international pesticide programs.  Another four million people a year die from lung infections which are caused by breathing in smoke and air pollution from wood and dung they use for cooking and heating–a problem which can be solved by helping developing nations attain modern electricity production. Yet another six million more perish from dysentery and other intestinal diseases caused by spoiled food and unsafe water, issues which can be addressed through American efforts at improving refrigeration, water purification and food irradiation.  The Bush Administration can make its mark on these issues by setting the tone and providing leadership–leadership that is presently absent in the international community–over the next four years.

These, naturally, are by no means the only issues upon which the President should focus.  Other policy issues such as salmon restoration, charter forests, wetlands restoration, biotechnology, and clean air also come to mind as important environmental topics.  Of course, the likelihood that all these matters will be settled over the tenure of his next four years is far-fetched, and no one should expect miracles from any Administration, leave alone this one.  But it is clear that this President has a unique opportunity to make an imprint on weighty subjects with the clout and support few of his predecessors ever enjoyed.  Only time will tell if he can do so effectively.