Inconvenient truths about the environmental crisis


Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth, raises the issue of global warming in a way that scares the bejeezus out of viewers, as it should since the consequences of global climate change are truly earth-shaking. The former vice-president does a good job of presenting the graphic evidence: exquisite and terrifying pictures that document the melting of the polar ice caps and the effects on other species, new diseases and rising ocean levels.

But the solutions Gore offers are standard US Democratic Party fare. You'd never know by watching this film that Gore and Bill Clinton ran the US for eight years and that their policies — as much as those of the Bush regime — helped pave the way for the crisis we face today.

Gore never critiques the system causing the global ecological crisis. At one point, he even mourns the negative impact of global warming on US oil pipelines! What it comes down to, for Gore and the Democrats, is that we need to shift away from reliance on fossil fuels and tweak existing consumption patterns. Even there, Gore and Clinton did nothing to improve fuel efficiency in the US, a topic which Gore talks about in the movie without any hint that he'd once actually been in a position to do something about it.

The question Gore poses is: who can best manage the relatively minor solutions he recommends, the Democrats or Republicans? For Gore, it's "trust US, not them, to deal with this situation because they are liars and we're not".

Well, should we trust him?

As Joshua Frank wrote in the May 31, 2006, Counterpunch, during the campaign for president in 1992 Gore promised a group of supporters that the Clinton-Gore Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) would never approve a hazardous waste incinerator located near an elementary school in Liverpool, Ohio, which was operated by WTI (Wineman Technology Inc).

"Only three months into Clinton's tenure", Frank wrote, "the EPA issued an operating permit for the toxic burner. Gore raised no qualms. Not surprisingly, most of the money behind WTI came from the bulging pockets of Jackson Stephens, who just happened to be one of the Clinton-Gore's top campaign contributors."

But failing to shut down toxic incinerators is just the tip of their great betrayal. In the film, Gore references the Kyoto accords and states that he personally went to Kyoto during the negotiations, giving the impression that he was a key figure in fighting to reduce air pollution emissions that destroy the ozone layer. What he omits is that his mission in going to Kyoto was to scuttle the accords, to block them from moving forward. And he succeeded.

Environmentally friendly?

The Clinton-Gore years were anything but environment-friendly. Under Clinton-Gore, more old growth forests were cut down than under any other recent US administration. "Wise Use" committees — set up by the timber industry — were permitted to clear-cut whole mountain ranges, while Clinton-Gore helped to "greenwash" their activities for public consumption.

Under Clinton-Gore, the biotech industry was given carte blanche to write the US government's regulations (paltry as they are) on genetic engineering of agriculture, and to move full speed ahead with implementing the private patenting of genetic sequences with nary a qualm passing Gore's lips.

You'd think watching this film that Gore is just some concerned professor who never had access to power or held hundreds of thousands of dollars of stock in Occidental Petroleum (driving the U'wa people off their lands in Colombia), let alone was the number two man actually running the US government!

"Gore, like Clinton who quipped that 'the invisible hand has a green thumb', extolled a free-market attitude toward environmental issues", wrote Frank, who goes on to quote Jeffrey St. Clair (Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: The Politics of Nature, Common Courage Press, 2004): "Since the mid-1980s Gore has argued with increasing stridency that the bracing forces of market capitalism are potent curatives for the ecological entropy now bearing down on the global environment. He is a passionate disciple of the gospel of efficiency, suffused with an inchoate technophilia."

Before Kyoto, before the Clinton-Gore massive depleted uranium bombings of Yugoslavia and Iraq, before their missile "deconstruction" of the only existing pharmaceutical production facility in northern Africa in the Sudan (which exacerbated the very serious problems there, as we're seeing in Darfur today), there was NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The task of Clinton-Gore was to push through this legislation, which not even strong Republican administrations under Ronald Reagan or Bush Sr. had been able to do. Since its inception, NAFTA has undermined US environmental laws, chased production facilities out of the US and across the borders, vastly increased pollution from maquilladoras (enterprise zones) along the US-Mexico border and helped to undermine the indigenous sustainable agrarian-based communities in southern Mexico — as predicted by leftists in both countries, leading to the Zapatista uprising from those communities on January 1, 1994, the day NAFTA went into effect.

Clinton-Gore also approved the destructive deal with the sugar barons of south Florida arranged by interior secretary Bruce Babbitt, which doomed the Everglades.

Early in Clinton-Gore's first administration, they pledged they would stop the plunder of the northwest forests, wrote former Village Voice columnist James Ridgeway in August 2000. "They then double-crossed their environmental backers. Under Bush Sr., the courts had enjoined logging in the Northwest habitats of the spotted owl. Clinton-Gore persuaded environmentalists to join them in axing the injunction. The Clinton administration went before a Reagan-appointed judge who had a record as a stalwart environmentalist and with the eco toadies in tow, got him to remove the injunction, and with it the moratorium on existing timber sales."

Then, explains Frank, the Gore and Clinton administration "capitulated to the demands of Western Democrats and yanked from its initial budget proposals a call to reform grazing, mining and timber practices on federal lands. When Clinton convened a timber summit in Portland, Oregon, in April 1994, the conference was, as one might expect, dominated by logging interests. Predictably, the summit gave way to a plan to restart clear-cutting in the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest for the first time in three years, giving the timber industry its get rich wish."

Gore and Clinton sent to Congress the infamous Salvage Rider, known to radical environmentalists as the "Logging without Laws" bill, which Frank described as "perhaps the most gruesome legislation ever enacted under the pretext of preserving ecosystem health". Like Bush's "Healthy Forests" plan, the Clinton-Gore act "was chock full of deception and special interest pandering".

"'When [the Salvage Rider] bill was given to me, I was told that the timber industry was circulating this language among the Northwest Congressional delegation and others to try to get it attached as a rider to the fiscal year Interior Spending Bill', environmental lawyer Kevin Kirchner said. 'There is no question that representatives of the timber industry had a role in promoting this rider. That is no secret.'"

What the Salvage Rider did was to "temporarily exempt ... salvage timber sales on federal forest lands from environmental and wildlife laws, administrative appeals, and judicial review", according to the Wilderness Society, long enough for multinational lumber and paper corporations to clear-cut all but a sliver of the US's remaining old growth forests.

Frank wrote: "Thousands of acres of healthy forestland across the West were rampaged. More than 4000 acres of Washington's Colville National Forest was clear cut. Thousands more in Montana's Yak River Basin, hundreds of acres of pristine forest land in Idaho, while the endangered Mexican Spotted Owl habitat in Arizona fell victim to corporate interests. Old growth trees in Washington's majestic Olympic Peninsula — home to wild Steelhead, endangered Sockeye salmon, and threatened Marbled Murrieta — were chopped with unremitting provocation by the US Forest Service."

Special interests

The assault on nature continued with Gore's blessing.

Around the same time, Clinton-Gore appointee Carol Browner, head of the EPA, was quoted in the New York Times as having said that the administration would be "relaxing" the Delaney Clause (named after its author, James Delaney, a Democratic member of Congress for New York).

Congress had inserted this clause into section 409 of the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1958. It prohibited Food and Drug Administration approval of any food additive found to cause cancer in humans or animals. Alone among all food-related directives, this legislation put the onus on the manufacturers to demonstrate that their products were safe before they were allowed to become commercially available.

A federal appeals court in July 1992 expanded the jurisdiction of the Delaney Clause, ruling that it was applicable to cancer-causing pesticides in processed food. Browner retracted her comment, claiming she'd never said it, but the proof was in the pudding. The ban on cancer-causing additives (the "Precautionary Principle") that had held through the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush senior administrations was finally removed, not by the Republicans but by the Clinton-Gore administration.

Instead of expanding the Delaney clause to protect produce and other unprocessed foods, the new Food Quality Protection Act legislation permitted "safe" amounts of carcinogenic chemicals (as designated by the Environmental Protection Agency) to be added to all food. (According to Peter Montague, editor of Rachel's Weekly, no-one knows how "safe amounts" of carcinogens can be established, especially "when several carcinogens and other poisons are added simultaneously to the food of tens of millions of people".) Nevertheless, the Clinton-Gore administration spun this as "progress".

The Clinton administration, with guidance from Gore's office, also cut numerous deals over the pesticide methyl bromide, despite its reported effects of contributing to ozone depletion and its devastating health consequences on farm workers picking strawberries.

Much is being made these days about the need to save the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. But Clinton-Gore opened the National Petroleum Reserve — 24 million untouched acres adjacent to the refuge, home to a large caribou herd and numerous arctic species — to oil drilling.

The chief beneficiary of this was Arco, a major ($1.4 million) contributor to the Democratic Party. At the same time, wrote James Ridgeway, "Clinton dropped the ban on selling Alaskan oil abroad. This also benefits Arco, which is opening refineries in China. So although the oil companies won the right to exploit Alaskan oil on grounds that to do so would benefit national development, Clinton-Gore unilaterally changed the agreement so that it benefits China's industrial growth."

Not once in the entire film does Gore criticise this awful environmental record or raise the critical questions we need to answer if we are to effectively reverse global warming: Is it really the case that the vast destruction of our environment that went on under his watch and, continuing today, is simply a result of poor consumer choices and ineffective government policies? Is the global environmental devastation we are facing today rectifiable with some simple tuning-up, as Gore proposes?

Neither he — as point man for the Clinton administration on environmental issues — nor Clinton-Gore's energy secretary Bill Richardson (with major ties to Occidental Petroleum), nor the Democratic Party in general offer anything more than putting a tiny band-aid on the Earth's gaping wounds, which they themselves helped to gash open.

Clearly, the vast destruction of the global ecology is a consequence not just of poor governmental policies but of the capitalist system's fundamental drive towards growth and what passes for development. Environmental activists won't find in Gore the kind of systemic analysis that is needed to stop global warming. Instead, we need to look elsewhere for that sort of deep systemic critique.

[Mitchel Cohen is a member of the Greens Party in Brooklyn, US. He can be contacted at .]