In tonight’s presidential debate, President Bush said—twice—”The quality of the air is cleaner since I’ve been the president.” The data on which Bush based that claim were contained in a series of reports issued annually by the Environmental Protection Agency on the six principal air pollutants as defined by the Clean Air Act. The six pollutants are: ozone (smog), carbon monoxide (tailpipe emissions), nitrogen dioxide (tailpipe and power plant emissions), particulates (soot), sulfur dioxide (the stuff that stinks up northern New Jersey), and lead (nowadays mainly a byproduct of smelting and battery-manufacturing). Emissions of these nasty substances do indeed go down every year, and have done so since 1970; you can thank the rise of environmentalism and the decline of heavy industry due to globalization.
For years, environmentalists have sought to put a seventh pollutant onto that list: carbon dioxide, which is the principal contributor to man-made global warming. Carbon dioxide emissions have not been declining every year. Between 1990 and 2002, they increased 17 percent. That’s more Bill Clinton’s fault than George W. Bush’s, since Clinton was president for eight of those years while Bush was president for only one. But the Clinton administration’s EPA was at least willing to acknowledge, in 1998, that carbon dioxide was a pollutant, one that potentially could be regulated under the Clean Air Act. The Bush administration, a little over a year ago, reversed that decision, declaring that carbon dioxide wasn’t a pollutant, even though the EPA’s own Web site acknowledges that human activity is the principal cause for a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and that a scientific consensus recognizes that this is warming the Earth.
When the EPA’s general counsel issued his ruling declaring that carbon dioxide was not a pollutant, I noted that this was mainly a sop to the automobile manufacturers. Now, however, I realize that there was an additional consideration. If carbon dioxide had been declared a pollutant and the EPA had started counting carbon dioxide emissions along with emissions of the other six chemicals, it no longer would have been possible for Bush to claim that air quality improved during his presidency. To acknowledge the problem would have been to admit failure. Better to pretend it doesn’t exist.