The greening of the president

Myriam Marquez

May 17, 1991|By Myriam Marquez

YOU CAN see it along the food aisles of your neighborhood grocery store, or even at most fast-food joints: The more environmentally conscious "Green Decade" is upon us.

From soup cans made of aluminum instead of wasteful steel to burgers wrapped in biodegradable paper instead of packaged in plastic or polyurethane, companies have realized that it's a plus to market their products to appeal to consumer awareness about protecting the environment.

Interestingly, businesses seem to have gotten ahead of the federal government on the environment.

The environmental movement has swelled in grass-roots support. It has made a difference in big states like Florida, where recycling helps meet the state goal of reducing by 30 percent the trash that goes in landfills, and in California, which has tough, new standards on auto emissions. But it still hasn't managed to translate the green message to a national agenda.

Former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, who now heads the League of Conservation Voters, hopes to change this apathy at the national level by targeting the congressional races in 1992. "The environmental movement has come on hard times nationally," Babbitt said last week on a stop in Orlando, Fla., part of a fund-raising and awareness tour for the conservation group that will take him to 50 cities this year.

But why the Congress? Isn't the real problem due to a lack of direction from the White House? Isn't it true that George Bush, the man who campaigned as our environmental president, has yet to offer an energy policy that would steer this nation away from over-dependence on oil, or to really crack down on toxic emissions from automobiles or to slow down the deforestation of national parks?

Babbitt makes the point that while Bush may not be doing all that's needed, voters really never expected him to. "The environment is less-than-dominant as a presidential issue," he said. Babbitt should know. When the Democrat ran for president in 1988, he found most Americans look to the president for guidance on the economy and national security. Everything else -- from social services to education and the environment -- is seen as falling on the Congress.

It's not as if Bush hasn't done anything for the environment. He at least managed to get the Congress to pass the Clean Air Act last year -- the first air-pollution standards in 13 years. But even those standards fall behind what other industrialized nations have imposed on their industries to protect the air.

And Bush has refused to tackle the problem of global warming as well. He claims there's not enough scientific evidence as yet ++ to show that certain pollutants are causing changes in the world's atmospheric conditions and temperatures.

The problem is, Bush too often lets economics interfere with environmental policy. Protecting jobs may help him get elected in the next term, but it won't make this planet more livable in the next decade.

Targeting Congress on environmental issues may be the best way to get the president's attention, then, especially if the candidates supported by the Conservation League win big in 1992.

The hardest job for the environmentalists, though, will be getting voters interested in issues that don't affect them locally. It's easy to get people riled up about plans for a toxic waste plant in their town, or angry about their beaches and lakes being polluted by trash or oil spills. But how do you make people realize that global warming is connected to those types of local crises?

Whether voters are really willing to elect people to Congress who will force them to change their wasteful lifestyles will be the real test in 1992. If they do, Bush may just get off his speedboat and listen.

Myriam Marquez is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.

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