WASHINGTON — IT'S BEEN so long since any effective step to curb pollution that last week's clean-air law was greeted here as savior of all things pure and holy.
Given the politics, it's not bad legislation. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who's been on the case for 10 years, has a right to feel proud. Congress toughened considerably the bill President Bush sent up. The toxic- waste and acid-rain provisions, so long blocked by President Reagan, are strong.
Measures to combat the urban smog whose foul air flows into the lungs of three-fifths of us were stretched out and weakened, however, at the behest of auto-makers and others. My 5-year-old will be in high school before the air quality here is required to reach legal standards. If we lived in Baltimore, he'd be in college. The standards themselves are too low.
After the poisonous summer of 1988, when I lay awake listening to him rasp night after night, we began getting him out of town for July and August. Most people can't afford that luxury.
Still the new act is a welcome start. Say at least for Bush that he was on board, unlike the Gipper who derided the idea of environmental clean-up. Not so, unfortunately, on two other matters vital to human health: global warming and over-population.
The U.S. is the chief stumbling block to a world-wide crusade against the greenhouse emissions most scientists believe are raising Earth's temperature. At a recent World Climate Conference of 135 nations, the U.S., Soviet Union and Third World stood alone in defying efforts to reduce carbon dioxide and other gases.
Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and 17 European nations said they'd take strong measures anyway. The U.S., which spews out one-fourth of all dioxide, called for more study. By 2000, our contaminants will increase 15 percent. Germany, New Zealand and Denmark will cut 25 percent. Japan and the rest of Europe will hold even.
Germany and Japan are at work on new technologies to reduce greenhouse gases. By the time we get around to admitting the problem, we can import these, along with VCRs, TV sets and automobiles.
Most of the foot-dragging traces to John Sununu, the White House chief of staff who suffers the conviction that he is smarter than scientists who warn of greenhouse warming. Their case is unproven, he insists.
Of course. And by the time we're sure, much of the vegetation we depend upon for life will be incinerated.
Most steps recommended for holding down greenhouse gases are beneficial in other environmental respects. They can be undertaken with no downside other than cost, but that's enough for Sununu, who increasingly calls the shots for Bush on domestic policy.
The administration's failure to support family planning in the Third World is even less rational. Reagan cut off funding because anti-abortion zealots sold him the myth it was being used to promote abortion. At least, he had the excuse of ignorance. Bush knows better but continues the tawdry policy as a sop to the GOP right.
There will be 6 billion souls polluting air, sea and land by 2000, and their number will multiply exponentially. Unless a way is found to reverse the trend, no amount of environmental heroics can keep this lovely planet life-sustaining.