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The Dirty Politics of the Environment

In 1988, politicians talked a lot about the environment but took little action.

Smoke, smokestack, mines, Mount IsaSmoke, smokestack, mines, Mount Isa

Smoke billows from a stack from one of the mines in the small outback town of Mount Isa in QUEENSLAND, AUSTRALIA in May 1988.

Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket via Getty

Everyone talked about the weather in 1988, but nobody in Washington did anything about it. All over the country this year, hot weather, droughts and smog alerts in major cities were consuming topics of conversation and also sources of great anxiety. Perhaps the most ominous thing about all the bad environmental news was that it seemed to confirm what scientific authorities had been predicting for a long time that staggering amounts of manmade pollution were causing the formation of a dangerous global hothouse, the infamous greenhouse effect.

North Sea seals killed by ocean pollution; medical garbage washed up on Jersey beaches; a North Carolina red-spruce forest killed by air pollution and acid rain. These and many other unsettling events scared the hell out of average citizens. But Mother Nature’s message did not get through to the politicians in Washington. The nation’s capital suffered, too, with smog and record-breaking high temperatures, and several measures were passed to deal with specific problems. But on the whole, it was politics as usual for Congress and the White House, for Democrats and Republicans.

The headline for this report on the politics of the environment might read,

Washington Diddles
While World Burns

Only the story really isn’t terribly funny. Nothing illustrates the breakdown of American democracy more starkly than the refusal of the political system to respond this year to an aroused public’s concerns about the environment. For months now citizens around the country have been brooding about the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica, the acid rain killing Eastern forests and lakes, the “brown cloud” over Denver and the terrifying greenhouse effect developing in the polluted atmosphere. But Washington took no notice.

For the eighth year in a row, Congress failed to pass new clean-air legislation. In the Senate a bill that was intended to attack the acid-rain problem was reported from committee in November 1987. But Democratic leaders held it back from a floor vote while they dickered privately among themselves, trying to protect their home-state economic interests. The bill died on the clerk’s desk. In the House of Representatives, they didn’t even get that far: lots of back-room bargaining but no bill, no embarrassing roll calls. In fairness to the Democrats, environmental bills are extremely difficult for Congress to pass on its own, when the man in the White House has no interest in such legislation and refuses to lead.

In any case, the clean-air bill failed to address what everyone now recognizes to be the overarching environmental problem global warming. Industrial societies have already produced enough atmospheric contamination to ensure an increase in temperatures in the next few years. Some scientists estimate that if the use of fossil fuels continues at present levels, global temperatures will rise five to fifteen degrees by the middle of the next century. Others believe temperatures will go up three to eight degrees before then. In other words, global climatic conditions are bound to get worse in the coming years even if the government acts right now. The dreadful consequences, from parched farm land in the Midwest to rising tides threatening coastal cities, will steadily get worse as long as government refuses to do anything.

Politicians all acknowledge the dangers of the illness. But they dread the cure reversing the greenhouse effect will require a profound reordering of industrial societies, both for producers and consumers. Last spring, Senator Robert Stafford, Republican of Vermont, pleaded with his fellow senators to confront the implications of global warming. “The first temperature increases,” said Stafford,

are expected to be confirmable beyond dispute in the 1990s, but there are some who believe that the signals of global warming and climate destruction are already manifesting themselves. They cite the fact that four of the last seven years are the hottest on record, that global average temperatures have increased by at least one-half a degree in the last half century, that a wide variety of circumstantial evidence — for example, summer and winter droughts, midocean blooms of algae, death of Caribbean coral — is consistent with the trend of rising temperatures.

The West is in the midst of a two-year drought. Last year forest fires raged throughout the [West]. The ocean’s temperatures, as well as its levels, have risen. Icebergs are proliferating in both numbers and size. Whether or not these are the long-awaited signals of the arrival of the hothouse which earth may become, there is no disagreement that unless we change our ways, it will eventually arrive.

The greenhouse effect has many complex causes, but the principal culprit is carbon dioxide (CO2), a colorless, odorless gas produced by every kind of engine that burns fossil fuels from automobiles to power plants. Not so long ago, CO2 was regarded as harmless. Today no scientist disputes the necessity to reduce CO2 emissions drastically worldwide so as to reverse the warming of the planet. Carbon dioxide, incidentally, is one area of manufacturing where America is still ahead of Japan the United States is the world’s largest producer of CO2.

The Reagan administration actually made the carbon dioxide problem worse this year, once again gutting the existing federal law on automobile fuel efficiency. Autos are the single largest source of CO2, and unless people want to give up cars, the only way to reverse the damage they cause to the atmosphere is to insist on automotive engines that burn dramatically less fuel per mile. Reagan’s Department of Transportation (DOT) has gone in the opposite direction.

On October 3rd, right in the middle of the presidential campaign, DOT announced that it was acceding to demands by General Motors and Ford that it lower the federal standard for fleet averages from 27.5 to 26.5 miles per gallon a concession that allows more production of larger cars and thus increases atmospheric pollution. In fact, the Reagan administration has let the auto companies off the hook on fuel efficiency every year since 1986 annual relaxations of standards that have added 300 million tons of CO2 annually to the atmosphere. In a speech to Detroit business leaders this fall, the secretary of transportation, Jim Burnley, denounced the 1975 mileage-efficiency law and called for its repeal. Democrats were silent. Evidently fearful of offending auto workers, the Dukakis campaign passed up what could have been a major issue in 1988 saving our planet from ourselves.

Congress, like the Reagan administration, also made things worse. Marching under the clean-air banner, the Democrats and Republicans enacted a bill to encourage the production of cars that can burn alternative fuels methanol (made from coal and natural gas) and ethanol (made from grains). These alcohol-based fuels might relieve air pollution on the ground in smog-choked cities like Los Angeles, but for complicated reasons of chemistry, they would not help the larger problem in the atmosphere. In fact, coal-based methanol would actually produce sixty percent more carbon dioxide than gasoline, not to mention ten times more formaldehyde, a cancer-causing chemical.

The methanol legislation virtually guarantees further damage to the atmosphere. It grants the auto companies yet another exemption from the fuel-efficiency law (1.2 miles per gallon on the fleet averages) if they manufacture cars that can burn both gasoline and methanol or ethanol. Of course, once some of these new dual-fuel cars are on the road, the companies will get their exemption and use it to produce more gas guzzlers. Meanwhile, there’s nothing to ensure that drivers of the dual-fuel vehicles will actually use methanol or ethanol instead of gasoline.

Clean air, in any case, was not the political motive that pushed the methanol bill to near-unanimous passage. The real driving force was “constituent economics” currying favor with farmers and coal miners by creating a potential new market for what they produce. A few honest voices like Senator Stafford’s were raised in dissent, but their warnings were drowned out. Even major environmental groups belonging to the National Clean Air Coalition ducked the issue. The coalition formally declared its opposition to the methanol bill but concluded, somewhat cynically, that there was nothing to be gained by actually trying to block a measure that was so popular among Capitol Hill politicians. Unfortunately, the politics of the environment is frequently defined by such game playing, parochial trade-offs and short-term tactics.


The battle over strengthening the Clean Air Act this year demonstrates vividly how a great national issue can degenerate into provincial political feuds. The winners and losers were obvious. West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, where high-sulfur coal is mined and burned, defeated Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, where the lakes and forests are acidifying from sulfurous pollution. Detroit, the capital of autos, shut out Los Angeles, the capital of poisonous air. Wyoming coal won. Denver’s asthmatics lost.

On a national scale the really big winners were the electric-power utilities, the auto industry and other heavy manufacturers who always benefit when no new clean air legislation gets enacted. The immediate losers are the 117 million people who live in areas where air pollution violates health standards prescribed by law. Thirty-five million of these Americans whose air was already below standard have seen it deteriorate further during the last decade.

Senator George Mitchell of Maine, the Democrat who chairs the Subcommittee on Environmental Protection, set out to negotiate his way through the snarl of local interests and reform the Clean Air Act primarily to halt acid rain. (His state, after all, is one of the chief victims of acid-rain pollution from the Midwest.) To get his bill started, Mitchell first had to hand out certain localized exemptions or delays sought by his fellow committee members special treatment for pollution sources in their home states. Chaffee of Rhode Island, Mikulski of Maryland, Burdick of North Dakota, Warner of Virginia, Graham of Florida, Breaux of Louisiana, all got exceptions and preferential treatment. Diluting clean-air enforcement has become its own form of pork barrel for Capitol Hill politicians a goody, like federal money for a new dam or highway, to seek for special constituents.

Once his bill was reported from committee. Mitchell turned to the real contest negotiating terms with fellow Democrats from Eastern coal states and the industrial Midwest. Since Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia is the Democratic majority leader, everyone understood that until Byrd approved the terms for coal, Mitchell’s bill would not be allowed to reach the Senate floor for a vote. Since Mitchell himself is a candidate to succeed Byrd as majority leader next year, he had added personal incentive to work out a compromise acceptable to other Democratic senators.

Why not challenge Byrd head-on and force the issue to a floor vote? Mitchell said the route had been tried in the past and produced nothing. “Senator Byrd had made it clear that even if you offered the legislation as a floor amendment to another bill and you succeeded, he would simply withdraw the bill and you would accomplish nothing,” Mitchell explains. “The question is, do you want to make a statement, or do you want to make a law?”

Through the summer months, Mitchell bargained repeatedly with Eastern coal not so much with Senator Byrd but with Richard Trumka, president of the United Mine Workers. Meanwhile, he also offered concessions to Senator Alan Simpson. Republican of Wyoming, who represents the Western producers of low-sulfur coal. Pollution control that’s bad for West Virginia coal is potentially good for Wyoming’s coal, which considers itself a competitor. Given the crass realities of Capitol Hill, Mitchell’s back-room strategy was perhaps the only way to proceed.

“The only way to get an acid-rain bill through Congress is to split the opposition divide the coal miners’ union from the electric utilities,” explains Leon G. Billings, who served many years as staff director of the Senate Public Works and Environment Committee. “It may not be possible even if you do that. But Mitchell succeeded in doing what for eight years had been undoable getting the coal miners to accept a deal. Did he give up too much to the UMW? The answer is he gave up what he had to give up to get a deal.”

When lobbyists from environmental groups saw the outlines of Mitchell’s compromise, they were disgusted. The bill not only reduced the overall mandate for cutting sulfur dioxide emissions the principal element in acid-rain destruction but it also pushed significant reductions far into the future, the year 2003 and beyond.

By comparison, the government of West Germany decreed in 1983 that within five years all of its 110 power plants be refitted with the best available technology to eliminate acid-rain pollution. The task was virtually completed this year while the U.S. Congress was choking on a less demanding plan stretched out over fifteen years. Besides West Germany, other European countries and Japan have also moved aggressively against acid rain. Their forests are dying. So are ours.

When the National Clean Air Coalition declared its opposition to Mitchell’s bill, the game was effectively over. The coalition had strong reason to believe that no bill at all was better than what Congress was about to enact. Its logic was this: If the Senate was going to compromise on acid-rain regulation, the House would likely be even more lax on automobile emissions and general air-quality enforcement. And Mitchell’s bill, disappointing as it was, would certainly be diluted even further in the closing days of Congress, when the infighting always becomes especially arcane and nasty.

In the House another formidable power, Representative John Dingell, Democrat of Michigan, was geared up to impose his own version of compromise on the legislative game playing. Dingell is the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a shrewd and strong-willed player who speaks for his home-state auto industry, as well as for other industrial sectors. Dingell derisively refers to his opponents as “enviros” and “jackass environmentalists.”

Year after year, Dingell has succeeded in squelching Representative Henry Waxman, Democrat of California, the chairman of the Commerce Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, whenever he has tried to strengthen the law. This year Waxman was completely neutralized by Dingell’s opposition and couldn’t even get the votes to report a bill from his own subcommittee.

“Clean-air legislation would have been passed years ago if Mr. Dingell didn’t have problems with Mr. Waxman’s legislation,” says David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Billings, who now lobbies for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, in Southern California, adds, “You have a guy who is extremely powerful and who uses that power brutally ask the guys in the House who have tried to go against him and who is also one of the most effective legislators in the House.”

Dingell responds indignantly to the “black hat” label. The “enviros,” he claims, promote legislation that won’t work and would only damage industry and produce lawsuits. “Who wears the black hat under those circumstances me or them?” Dingell says. “It isn’t just the American automobile industry. It’s the steel industry and chemical industry and smelting and electric generation. I don’t intend to destitute those people. I think we’ve got an opportunity to preserve jobs and industry and competitiveness and also improve on human health. I don’t think I have a mandate to put one over the other.”

Dingell’s self-righteous rebuttal is actually a fair summary of why the political system fails to act. Economic interests are now treated with the same respect as those of human health and survival. Perhaps with even more respect. In Washington terms, the environmental debate is now just another argument over money.


The trouble with corporations, says a legislative aide who has struggled for years to enact serious environmental controls, is that they don’t have grandchildren. Corporations are legal entities responsible for the next quarter’s earnings, not for what happens to the next generation. They create jobs and profits in the here and now. They are incapable of looking over the horizon and accepting responsibility for the future.

If that sounds too harsh, consider E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company. Du Pont’s products have contributed directly to the deterioration of the ozone layer that protects us from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. In 1974, when scientists warned that the ozone mantle in the atmosphere was being dissipated by industrial gases such as Freon du Pont’s trade name for chlorofluorocarbons (CfCs) the company dismissed the evidence as inconclusive. Du Pont magnanimously promised to abandon Freon used in air conditioning, Styrofoam cups, cushions and the like it the company was ever presented with proof.

Eleven years later alarmed scientists discovered the now-famous hole that has developed in the ozone layer over Antarctica a sudden breach in the ecosystem worse than anything the Cassandras of the early Seventies had predicted. After some public embarrassment, du Pont agreed to keep its promise and stop manufacturing Freon. But when? Du Pont will not set a date, but the company says it will be before the year 2000. First it must test possible substitutes for safety. If government were more alert and less compliant, it would have told du Pont to start testing for conversion years ago.

Meanwhile, politicians around the world, including officials of the Reagan administration, are congratulating themselves on their new international agreement to reduce global production of CFCs by fifty percent by the year 2009. Trouble is, Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment estimates that the actual effect of the new agreement will only be a forty percent reduction in CFC pollution even in the unlikely event that the whole world complies with the accord. No one can say what damage another twenty years of increased pollution will do to the ozone layer, though the world already knows what the last fourteen years of stalling accomplished.

The ozone issue has far graver potential than many other environmental dangers, but the politics is typical. With rare exceptions, the corporate response is first denial, then grudging retreat as the evidence accumulates accompanied by legal and political maneuvers designed to delay adjustment as long as possible. Lead additives in gasoline also developed by du Pont were known to have been poisoning children for years before the federal government finally, reluctantly, moved against them. Yet the government still allows ten percent of this poison to remain in gasoline rather than disrupt the business of the small refiners who market it. “The environment,” says Billings, “is the contact issue between the public interest and corporate America, between organized special interests who control capital and what the public wants and needs.”

The auto industry is perhaps the most adept at environmental politics. It held off enactment of meaningful air-pollution controls for more than a decade, then resisted compliance for another decade after the auto-emissions standards were written in law. The controls on cars have been effective in reducing pollutants, but the industry’s stall tactics tend to cancel out real progress on overall air quality. While Detroit yielded grudgingly, the number of vehicles on the road increased, and Americans now drive another 200 billion miles per year more exhaust, more gross pollution that will require even tougher standards, which, naturally, the industry dismisses as unwarranted.

One obvious solution, which would improve air quality and reverse global warming, is to manufacture automobiles that burn a lot less fuel per mile. The good news is that the necessary technology already exists in 1985, Toyota unveiled a five-passenger prototype that runs ninety-eight miles on a single gallon of gasoline. It’s not yet on the market, however. (Other breakthroughs are possible in other technologies from light bulbs to power plants if the federal government would prod both producers and consumers to adopt them.)

The bad news is that auto companies make bigger profits on large cars, especially in America, and so corporate self-interest pushes them in the wrong direction. This will continue, no doubt, until government enacts new taxes that penalize sellers and buyers of inefficient engines or passes laws prohibiting wasteful vehicles altogether.

American auto companies are digging a hole for themselves and especially for their workers. The automobile manufacturers have shifted most of their production of smaller, more efficient cars to foreign countries. As a result, American auto workers are mostly making larger cars. Their jobs, once the politicians get around to facing the implications of global warming, will be much more threatened than, say, those of auto workers in Japan or Korea. Naturally that only makes the politicians more reluctant to confront the problem.


While corporations are the major cause of the stalemate in the politics of the environment, it’s too easy to blame only them. Everyone shares responsibility: for example, the major environmental groups that accumulated political strength twenty years ago, when Americans discovered ecology, today seem bogged down in their own version of tired-blood politics. After years of battling in the trenches, fighting polluters in the courts and in regulatory agencies for incremental victories, the environmental professionals seem ground down by Washington’s way of doling out progress in small bits and pieces. The movement has lost its anger and radical edge and, more important, its ability to mobilize public opinion into an effective political force.

Washington politicians weren’t prepared to do anything this year about the public’s anxieties over the global hothouse, but, in fairness, neither were most environmental groups. They have become accustomed to pushing for specific issues on well-defined turf land, air, water, toxics. The implications of global warming cut across these narrowly defined areas and will force environmentalists to reexamine their objectives, too. Solutions of the 1970s like catalytic converters on automobiles or scrubbers on power plants actually aggravate the greenhouse problem.

Ultimately, finding answers to our environmental crisis will be much tougher than just blaming political cowardice and corporate greed. The vast adjustments that will be necessary go very deep, to the core of industrial society, and virtually every consumer will be forced to make changes in lifestyle whether it is giving up those beloved “muscle cars” or accepting that human existence does not require air conditioning twenty-four hours a day.

People got angry this year over the environment, but will they stay angry long enough to be heard in Washington’s debate next year? The battle lines are already drawn. Before his retirement this fall, Senator Stafford introduced a far-reaching bill to set standards and deadlines for reversing the formation of the hothouse. Senator Tim Wirth, Democrat of Colorado, and Representative Claudine Schneider, Democrat of Rhode Island, are sponsoring related measures the first steps in what promises to be a long fight. Meanwhile, a new international network of activists from thirty-five nations was recently formed to arouse public opinion around the world. They plan a Global Earth Day for the spring of 1990 and hope to launch a Green Decade movement to overcome politics as usual.

Jeremy Rifkin, the well-known social critic and president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, believes the Global Greenhouse Network he helped launch this fall must first provoke deep ethical arguments among citizens before the political system can be expected to respond seriously. “The greenhouse crisis is the bill coming due for the Industrial Revolution.” Rifkin says. “It’s not an accident. It’s the logical outcome of our world view the idea that we can control the forces of nature, that we can have short-term expedient gains without paying for them, that there are no limits to exploitation of the environment, that we can produce and consume faster than nature’s ability to replenish.”

Perhaps real environmental politics has to begin not in official Washington but with citizens everywhere pondering those somber thoughts.

In This Article: Coverwall, Environment


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