The Sky is Indeed Falling Bush Says, Get Used to It

The world is becoming hotter and the air you breathe can give you cancer, according to two new EPA studies. But, the Bush administration says, don't worry about it.

In the last week of May, the Bush EPA -- that's nearly an oxymoron -- posted on its web sites two significant reports, one on global warming, the other on air toxics. For neither did the EPA issue a press release or hold a press conference; the air toxics assessment was placed on the site on a Friday, the day of choice for bureaucrats looking to avoid media attention. Despite the EPA's efforts, the global warming paper -- which confirmed the scientific consensus that human-generated greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide from cars and power plants, are the main cause of global warming -- hit the front-page of The New York Times and sparked a mini-controversy. The air toxics report, which showed the cancer risks of air pollution, produced barely a sigh. And on each of these fronts, the administration has offered no policy that would truly address the problem confirmed.

Let's look at the air toxics report first. Years in the making, this study examined the risk posed by 32 common air pollutants, 29 of which are classified as carcinogens. Using data from 1996, the EPA concluded that more than 200 million Americans live where the cancer risk from these substances exceeds a ten in 1 million risk, meaning that there would be ten additional cancers (attributable solely to these chemicals) for every 1 million people. That may not sound like much (except, of course, if you are one of the unlucky ones), but the EPA typically tries to deal with cancer risks between one in 1 million and 100 in 1 million. Moreover, there are plenty of areas where the EPA found a greater risk than the average. "This report shows the risks are still very high for breathing outside air," says Dr. Gina Solomon, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The unpromoted EPA website for this study is rather nifty; it allows visitors to look up individual states. I gave Washington, DC, a spin and saw the cancer risk was close to 200 in a million (that's one in 5,000). To be slightly less parochial, I checked Los Angeles: The risk was the same as Washington. The site also lets you check where certain toxics are especially bad. "It's pretty useful," says Solomon. "You can see where toxic hotspots exist. It's a shame this hasn't gotten more attention." She notes that in some locales the risk is one in 1,000 and that the maps contain a pattern of pollution -- involving mercury and soot -- that runs from the northern Midwest to New England. This swath of dangerous air is probably caused by coal-burning power plants.

The study also calculated the non-cancer health effects of a lifetime of exposure to these toxics. It concluded that the "respiratory hazard index" exceeded 1.0 for "nearly the entire US population," noting that a hazard index "greater than 1.0 can be best described as indicating that a potential may exist for adverse effects." For 20 million Americans, the hazard index surpassed 10.0.

The Washington Post published a four-paragraph item on the study on page A16, under the headline, "200 Million in US Face Cancer Risk, EPA Says," without mentioning the details for Washington. Why wasn't this worth more space? As far as I can tell, only The Los Angeles Times ran a full story on the study, with a subhead that stated, "For millions of Americans, many of them living in California, the danger is 100 times greater than acceptable levels." This may not be news you can use. After all, are you going to stop breathing? But it is news you deserve to know. Especially when the Bush administration is trying to provide industry more slack in dealing with its emissions and has presented a so-called "clean skies" initiative that will lessen pollutants at a slower pace than that mandated by current clean-air laws.

The Bushies succeeded in burying the air toxics assessment. They failed with the global warming report. Written in keeping with obligations the United States has under an early climate change treaty signed by Bush's father, the study says the United States will experience dramatic environmental changes due to global warming in the coming decades. A partial list includes heat waves and other extreme weather, loss of wetlands and coastland, pest outbreaks, more air pollution, and water shortages. Bush tried to distance himself from the study, dismissing it as a "report put out by the bureaucracy," and his chief mouthpiece, Ari Fleischer, said there still is "considerable uncertainty" on the scientific causes of global warming. But the report did allow the administration to have its carbon dioxide and eat it, too. While it confirmed what environmentalist and other nations have been saying about global warming for years, it expressed doubt concerning the ability of emission cuts to counter the damage already in progress.

What a wonderful strategy for industry and its political comrades: They denied global warming for so long that there is no longer a possible remedy. Now that pro-business Republicans finally concede global warming is under way and caused by human activity, they claim it's too late to do anything and argue that decreasing greenhouse gases -- as called for by the Kyoto treaty the Bush administration trashed -- won't matter. The message contained in the report is, global warming is indeed coming, but nothing can really be done, so get used to it.

The White House isn't quite that frank in public. It still is trying to fool people into believing the President cares and is addressing the problem. Scott McClellan, a White House spokesman, said, "It is important to move forward on the president's strategies for addressing the challenge of climate change, and that's what we're continuing to do." In response to questions from the White House press corps about Bush's snotty reaction to his own EPA's study, Fleischer maintained Bush's climate change proposal "can reduce the problem of greenhouse gases and global warming." But no one in the briefing room that day posed the obvious challenge to Fleischer. Bush's plan calls for voluntary reductions in the growth of greenhouse gases. That means it's fine by him if the United States' production of greenhouse gases continues to rise, as long as it increases at a pace slower than the growth of the economy. If the economy expands by 2.5 percent, then the amount of greenhouse gases produced can go up by 2.4 percent. It's tough to see how permitting more greenhouse gases will "reduce the problem" of global warming. The Bush administration ought to drop this fig leaf. If (as its new report argues) Kyoto-style reductions are not going to repair the atmosphere -- a proposition open to challenge -- Bush's rinky-dink proposal surely won't mean a thing. Why bother with it -- except for politics? Instead, he should offer tax credits for air conditioning (for the report does advocate more air conditioning) and sun screen.

Here's a philosophical question. Is it worse to deny a problem exists, or to recognize the problem but then, rather purposefully, do nothing of substance? The air, according to government scientists, is a threat to the nation. Yet Bush refuses to act upon the evidence. With this less-than-serious response, he signals that, really, really, the air is just fine. It's a reverse Chicken Little position -- which can be quite dangerous when the sky is actually falling.

David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation.

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