Rapid-fire decisions on ergonomics, arsenic levels and carbon dioxide emissions indicate that scientific opinion sits low in the pecking order of influence inside the new Bush administration.
It normally takes several months for a new US administration to find its tone, as thousands of mid-level political appointees arrive in Washington to man the levers of government, and relationships are established with other power centres, including the Congress. But a string of regulatory decisions made by George W. Bush and others in recent weeks make it abundantly clear where his administration stands on matters in which scientists would normally play an important advisory role. It stands firmly with the employers and polluters who helped to pay for Bush's singularly unimpressive election victory last November, and damn the scientific evidence.
The first decision, on ergonomics, was instigated by the Republican-controlled Congress, which passed a law, immediately signed by Bush, to debar ergonomic regulations, proposed by the previous administration, on the grounds of their alleged cost (see Nature 410, 292; 2001). Although the action was widely interpreted as a successful attack by business interests on the labour unions, it also inflicts damage on the political prestige of the National Academy of Sciences, whose recent report on the matter was blithely disregarded.
The credibility of Christie Whitman, already seen as marginalized in her role as Bush's administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), took a further dip last week when she issued a stalling order on a proposal left over from the Clinton administration that would have sharply reduced the level of arsenic in drinking water (see page 503). A National Academy study on this topic found that the cancer risk at the current level — which dates from 1942 — is extraordinarily high. Whitman is promising a new rule soon, but meanwhile the administration is in the invidious position of arguing that the United States cannot afford the arsenic standard that is already required in Europe and is recommended by the World Health Organization.
The most economically and politically significant of the three decisions came on 13 March, when the administration wrote to four senators informing them that it would renege on its pre-election promise to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide (see Nature 410, 401; 2001). The wording of this letter has produced bemusement among even moderate Republicans, who note that it fails to offer any consistent explanation for its summary rejection of the accumulated scientific evidence that greenhouse-gas emissions are contributing to climate change.
The reversal on carbon dioxide has been accompanied by some shameless dissembling by Bush's supporters over the circumstances in which he originally promised to regulate carbon dioxide emissions on the campaign trail. It is being falsely claimed that the promise was barely noticed at the time it was made, and that its insertion in a campaign speech was a “mistake” made by low-level Bush operatives.
On the contrary, the promise was made as part of a concerted effort to portray Bush as a new kind of conservative, sensitive to ordinary suburban voters' concerns about the environment and, it was even suggested, more likely to make real progress on environmental issues than Al Gore, the green evangelist. But instead of bringing a new pragmatism to the climate-change issue, and perhaps providing American leadership on the control of domestic emissions that could have opened the way to renegotiating the unrealistic targets set under the Kyoto Protocol, Bush has seen fit to capitulate to the coal industry at the first available opportunity.
One price — perhaps intentionally exacted — is the humiliation of Whitman, who spent her first month at the EPA telling everyone who would listen that Bush intended to get serious about climate change (see Nature 410, 133; 2001). But a bigger price will be paid by many others if Bush persists in ignoring what science is telling him.
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Problems with the president. Nature 410, 499 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1038/35069194