Environment a Bush pitfall

April 25, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The effectiveness of the demonstrations at the Quebec summit on trade -- some of them violent -- is open to question. For the most part, they were out of sight, if not sound, of the national leaders who gathered to consider the formation of a free trade zone throughout the Western Hemisphere.

According to David Waskow, trade policy coordinator for Friends of the Earth, who in a fashion attended the conference, the barricaded meeting area barred any direct communication with the delegates or even with the news media covering them. They were much less accessible, he says, than conferees and the press at the earlier conference in Seattle that ignited more serious street protests.

But those leaders, including President Bush in his first appearance on a summit stage, could not have come away without a realization of the growing public concerns over the impact of globalization in all its manifestations, from commerce to protection of the environment.

The same issues that caused previous American presidents difficulty in pushing approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), including demands for higher labor and anti-pollution standards, face Mr. Bush and the other Western Hemisphere leaders as they seek the hemisphere-wide pact.

Democratic Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, who also was in Quebec as the ranking minority member of the House Ways and Means subcommittee dealing with trade, says that while the rhetoric of including such standards was heard from Mr. Bush and others, "the important question is whether the rhetoric will be converted into policy."

Mr. Bush did observe at one point that "our commitment to open trade must be matched by a strong commitment to protecting our environment and improving labor standards." But he also said when pressed by a reporter that "we should not allow (such) codicils to destroy the spirit of free trade."

From the viewpoint of public awareness, Mr. Waskow says the free trade agreement was not as much on the radar screen of the meeting as its impact on labor and environmental protection because of the highly publicized demonstrations. "We rely on the media to be our communicator," he says.

A key for Mr. Bush in making a hemisphere-wide trade agreement work is obtaining approval from Congress to fast-track authority -- the ability to make agreements with other participating countries without having to go back to Congress for possible amendment. As a result of the opposition voice in Quebec, Waskow says, achieving fast-track authority will now be more difficult for Bush to achieve.

Evidence of that fact, Mr. Waskow says, is the way the Bush administration, after "coming out of the box rolling back" regulations put in force by President Bill Clinton, has now been conspicuously back-pedaling in the face of heavy criticism.

Twenty years ago, environmentalism was pretty much off the radar screen of which Mr. Waskow speaks, at least as far as most of the Republican Party was concerned. Ronald Reagan's flights into fantasy about how pollution could be good for humans provided a good laugh, but that was all.

In his 1980 presidential campaign, Mr. Reagan told receptive coal and steel officials in Ohio that a recent eruption of Mount St. Helens had coughed up more sulfur dioxide in the air "than has been released in the last 10 years of automobile driving." The Environmental Protection Agency promptly corrected him, saying the volcano emitted no more than 2,000 tons a day compared to 81,000 a day from all man-made sources.

On another occasion, Mr. Reagan told how winds blowing over the Santa Barbara Channel had once "purified the air and prevented the spread of infectious diseases." He also said trees and other vegetation were "responsible for 93 percent of the oxides of nitrogen," which "might be beneficial to tubercular patients." Whereupon the EPA reported he had confused nitrogen dioxide, a regulated pollutant, with nitrous oxide, a natural and unregulated product of plant respiration.

Mr. Reagan's gaffes inspired ridicule, such as a sign at one rally showing a tree and proclaiming: "Chop Me Down Before I Kill Again," but they didn't seem to ignite any wide public concern over pollution then.

But times have changed, as the Quebec protests -- and the Bush administration's rush to get right on environmental issues -- are now demonstrating.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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