The news should have caused a national uproar: A global trade authority ordered the United States to allow higher levels of air pollution or pay huge fines. But, if you blinked, you may have missed the story entirely.In a decision with momentous implications, the new World Trade Organization ruled that the U.S. law known as the Clean Air Act is unacceptable because of restrictions it places on pollutants in imported gasoline. The decree could result in higher levels of toxic auto emissions."This is a major blow to the ability of the United States to protect public health," said a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.But, when the news broke in mid-January, it was a fleeting blip on the media screen. Since then, follow-up coverage has been almost impossible to find.Why did such a dramatic -- and important -- story drop from sight so quickly? Because none of this nation's top movers and shakers wanted to make a big deal out of it.The White House preferred that the story disappear, pronto. After all, the World Trade Organization owes its existence to the GATT trade pact that President Clinton pushed through Congress in late 1994.Back then, Clinton vowed that the accord would not interfere with U.S. anti-pollution laws. His trade representative, Mickey Kantor, even claimed that the GATT agreement "will help improve environmental protection."Yet, in the wake of the WTO's outrageous ruling Jan. 17, leading Republicans were not well-positioned to turn it into a campaign issue.Sen. Bob Dole has lamented the enormous power of the WTO, but there's no escaping the reality that he voted to create it in the first place. So did Phil Gramm and Richard Lugar, the other senators seeking the GOP presidential nomination. And publishing magnate Steve Forbes has always been enthusiastic about the organization.In fact, among this year's major candidates for president, only Patrick Buchanan opposed the GATT treaty. And he has a tough time sounding righteous about the WTO's assault on the Clean Air Act.Buchanan loves to make passionate speeches about American sovereignty, but he happens to despise federal regulations that protect the environment. In keeping with his brand of political theology, Buchanan defines environmentalism as the antithesis of all that's holy. "Easter's gone," he declares angrily. "Now it's Earth Day. We can all go out and worship dirt."On Capitol Hill, most Democrats -- eager to cover for Clinton -- are remaining silent about the WTO's action. This makes for notable hypocrisy. For instance, the newest member of the Senate, Oregon's Ron Wyden, has presented himself as a Democratic defender of ecology since his recent election to fill the unexpired term of Sen. Bob Packwood.Republicans in Congress are "just going on a bender with respect to clean air, clean water and environmental laws," Wyden charged. Unfortunately, Wyden -- who helped to establish the WTO by voting for GATT in the House -- failed to denounce the WTO for going on a bender with respect to the Clean Air Act.Stymied by public opinion that has forced congressional Republicans to back off from efforts to gut laws like the Clean Air Act, many corporate polluters now view the World Trade Organization as a godsend.Multinational oil companies are quietly savoring the WTO's decision. They see big dollar signs ahead, with surging U.S. imports of dirty gasoline from outmoded foreign refineries.What about environmental organizations? The sad truth is that the largest ones have gotten into the habit of muting their voices in deference to the White House.One of the most independent advocacy groups -- Public Citizen, founded by Ralph Nader -- has not minced words. "Under the WTO, countries and their democratically elected representatives are very limited in what they can do to implement and enforce environmental objectives," says Lori Wallach, director of the group's Global Trade Watch.Because of the WTO ruling on gasoline, Wallach told me, the United States must make "an unacceptable choice between allowing more polluted air or facing enormous sanctions -- $150 million a year."Welcome to global "free trade," WTO style.After extolling the creation of the World Trade Organization, big media outlets have a responsibility to examine the threat it now poses to environmental safeguards.Too often, debates over trade policy seem ideological or theoretical. But there's nothing abstract about the air we breathe.Politics '96: The Power of Babble By Norman SolomonI'M GREEN, LIKE MONEY"The most important environmental reform we can adopt is to guarantee the protection of private property." -- Phil GrammIn other words: The environment should be for sale. ***"It turns out a lot of (acid rain) is created by nature, not by smokestacks. ... There is a lot we don't know about what causes some environmental problems. You still have a huge debate now on global warming, on acid rain, so I think a little humility is in order. ... Too often, emotionalism triumphs over science." -- Steve ForbesIn other words: It turns out a lot of my approach to the environment is created by greed, not by evidence. There is a lot the public doesn't know about me, so I think evasion is in order. Too often, science triumphs over avarice. ***"There is something more important than the environment. It's freedom." -- Phil GrammIn other words: Let's buy into false choices. ***"It's a bipartisan victory, a textbook example of how the White House and Congress can work together. Creativity that has been bottled up for decades will be let out in a very constructive way." -- Al GoreIn other words: The new communications law is a textbook example of bipartisan corruption. We bowed to mega-corporations, and so did the Republicans. The power to further monopolize media will be uncorked in a very lucrative way. ***"Economics and values are the same thing." -- Steve ForbesIn other words: I own what I value. My human worth is, well, my net worth. ***"By creating a culture of poverty, we have destroyed the very people we are claiming to help." -- Newt GingrichIn other words: By claiming to defend the victims of poverty, we can destroy the programs created to help them.

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