Grading the Environmentalists
After twelve years of government hostility to environmental concerns, certified "greenies" occupy seats of power in Washington. But is the Clinton administration biting off less than it needs to chew? In search of a grand vision, Bill McKibben talks to new EPA chief Carol Browner and Vice President Al Gore.
January 1994

Carol Browner’s first task is to resell the idea of environmental protection.

It was a cool, sunny summer day in the nation's capital, and Carol Browner, the 38‑year‑old administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), was on a roll. The previous night the CBS Evening News had led its broadcast with her testimony at a congressional hearing on secondhand tobacco smoke ‑her testimony and that of Max Graham, a five‑year‑old asthmatic boy with a cute grin who told the story of the day he sat next to someone smoking at the ballpark.

"What did the smoke do to you, Max?" asked a congressman.
"It made me cough," he said.
"And what else?"
"Throw up."

Next to Max, the hapless "scientist" produced by the tobacco industry looked like a monster from a Grimm's fairy tale. And Browner looked like, well, a fair maiden in a knit suit out to slay some serious dragon.

It's impossible not to like Browner, especially against the backdrop of Capitol Hill ‑where, as she makes her rounds, the House closed‑circuit TV broadcasts one speech after another about Dan Rostenkowski, the post office scandal, and the Senate debate about funding for the United Daughters of the Confederacy, whose emblem depicts the Stan and Bars. This morning she spends an hour with the House's Sunbelt Caucus and by all accounts charms them, even managing to take it as a compliment when one of the more ossified members says that running the nation is like raising a child, and her particular job is to clean the diapers. In the hall afterward, she wonders if he might have phrased this differently to a man. But never mind. "A big part of this job is letting people see that you don't have two horns and three eyes," she says. Back in the EPA's executive suite, she sits down with senior enforcement personnel from around the agency. "If there are individuals anywhere it would be helpful for me to sit down with, just say the word and I'll do it," she says earnestly. Afterward, she mingles, making jokes and thanking people for coming to the meeting. Everyone is clearly thrilled and a little startled. Says one woman as she waits for the elevator, "What a sea change."

But is it? "Secondhand tobacco smoke?" snorts Rick Hind, director of Greenpeace's Toxics Campaign. "There's a tough stand. Is there anyone left who thinks smoking's not dangerous?" Hind accuses the administration of trying too hard to please regulated industries. So far, "it's a Browner shade of green at the EPA," says Hind, who worked with her years ago at a scruffy nonprofit fighting water pollution, adding, "I don't think she thinks of herself as a sellout."

Environmental stories usually follow a pattern as predictable as romance novels, and so far this one is proceeding according to script. Government officials act to, say, cleanup the air in a region; industry protests that the regulation is too strict; environmentalists say it is too lax. The truth is held to be somewhere in between.

Over time the volume of the complaints changes. Under Presidents Reagan and Bush, it was scarcely credible for businesses to complain about overregulation. But the Clinton administration boasts not only Browner but Bruce Babbitt, a man so revered for his stands on western land use that, when his name surfaced as a Supreme Court possibility, environmentalists fought to keep him in his job as interior secretary. And then there's Vice President Al Gore, Browner's mentor and the most knowledgeable environmentalist ever to reach high office. Only the most dedicated complainers can stay entirely angry.

Yet the complainers are right on one score: As administrations have come and gone, the issues and the rhetoric have largely stayed the same. Most of the fights continue to be over clean air and soil and water and endangered species‑issues that were put on the agenda in the Nixon administration. Call these Type A environmental problems: Something has gone wrong in an otherwise admirable system, and there is now too much smog or too few spotted owls. Put a better filter on it and the problem will largely disappear. Some say the filter is too expensive; others say you need three filters. These are important battles.

But they are not, anymore, the battle. Many of the environmental prophets have given us just ten years to get our collective act together -not to cut the smoking rate or reduce the use of pesticides but to accomplish things that are hardly on the agenda now, like slowing population growth and stanching the flood of gases flowing from our cars and power plants into the atmosphere. Call them Type B troubles‑the system's the problem, and tweaking the filters won't help much. If we decide to cope with these catastrophes, our lives will look different in wholesale ways. If we don't, our planet will look different in wholesale ways‑hotter, more arid, more crowded, less diverse. Fifty years from now, the Clinton administration will be judged not on how well they administered the Clean Water Act but on how successfully they managed to shift the terms of the debate.

It is hard to think of a more difficult political task. Choosing his words carefully, Al Gore summed up the dilemma in a recent interview: "We are in an unusual predicament as a global civilization. The maximum that is politically feasible, even the maximum that is politically imaginable right now, still falls short of the minimum that is scientifically and ecologically necessary."

In other words, it's fine for the Clinton administration to worry about the secondhand smoke in Max's face, as long as they realize that the re­ally dangerous smoke is the carbon dioxide pouring out the back of his parents' station wagon.

How close is the EPA to making that necessary shift? Not very.

"One of the things that happened in the last twelve years is that people started hiding behind the science and technical nature of this agency," says Browner. Since its founding in 1970, the EPA always devoted more energy to proposing and enforcing regulations than to administering broad policies. In the Reagan years the EPA was branded a bastion of rules that "stifled" business and "choked" growth. With no one to make a case for its laws, the agency became more and more despised, to the point that its enforcement agents have been pistol‑whipped and chased by bulldozers.

So Browner's first order of business is to resell the public on the most basic notions of environmental protection. "If you look at labor laws at the turn of the century, and the conditions that people worked under, people began to say, 'This is not humane, we can't continue to treat people this way. To treat children this way.' And yet the people who talked about making changes were… told they would be the death knell of American business. I don't think there's anyone who would suggest we should go back to where we were. And I think that 30 or 40 years after the beginning of environmental protection, we will be in the same place. People will say, 'That's right, that's what government does for us."

As vice president, Al Gore says he still devotes “by far the most time” to environmental issues.

The reference to child‑labor laws is no accident‑her public relations strategy has focused heavily on children. A few weeks before the anti‑secondhand smoking drive, Browner announced a plan with the Department of Agriculture and the FDA to reduce pesticide use, again arguing that kids were most at risk. Children are stock characters in her speeches‑the crowd of five‑year‑olds at her son Zachary's public kindergarten last year, for instance, all of whom knew about recycling and could name an endangered species. "Kids get it; they just fundamentally get protecting the environment," she says.

No one opposes children. Few oppose "partnership" or "compromise" either‑and as with the president, these seem to be among Browner's chief instincts. Word is that one reason Clinton picked Browner was her success working with businesses in Florida, where she headed the office of environmental regulation. When Disney, for instance, came to her with plans to drain 400 acres of wetlands in Orlando, it was prepared to pay the usual price: build "new" wetlands elsewhere. “We expect engineers to build us something in a month that it takes hundreds of years for nature to create," Browner scoffs. Instead she convinced Disney brass that they needed only 230 acres. Then she got them to buy an adjacent 8,500‑acre cattle ranch and give it to the Nature Conservancy. When similar deals are finished in Florida, Browner says, "we're going to have a greenway, and the water's going to move, and the wildlife is going to move. That's how we need to view things in this country, as part of a bigger system."

Labor laws. Children. Compromise. She who owns the metaphors has a chance to control the discussion. When Reagan talked about bureaucracy, necessary regulation became suspect; if Browner and Clinton and Gore and Babbitt can shift the images, they can make real changes. Already the administration has reached significant compromises on the logging of ancient forests in the Northwest, on higher grazing fees for ranchers on federal lands, and on international environmental accords.

One danger, of course, is that the images will enchant those who wield them, and in pursuit of "compromise" they will get rolled.

"They're so dumb they think they can outsmart the Fortune 500," says Greenpeace's Hind, still stinging from the administration's refusal to block a giant hazardous‑waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio. "By going soft they've thrown some blood in the water for polluter sharks." The Sierra Club's Carl Pope, having watched Browner stand firm with California governor Pete Wilson on water issues, is kinder: "She understands you need carrots as well as sticks."

But there's another problem, subtler but maybe graver: The administration may be biting off less than it needs to chew. When Browner talks about the need to change the EPA's strategy, she says quite rightly that most of its achievements in its first two decades have "essentially been end‑of‑the‑pipe command and control." In the next 20 years, she says, we've got to "go upstream" and figure out ways to prevent toxic, waste production in the first place.

So far, so good. But if the EPA works toward that goal till 2010, it will have, in effect, gotten the dining‑room steward on the Titanic to switch to recycled paper napkins.

The meaning of pollution has changed so dramatically in the last two decades that carrots, sticks, and smart compromises are increasingly beside the point. To deal with global threats that require us to change our habits we will need more than sweet reason, more than comfortable ac­commodations like the new ozone-friendly chemicals now starting to power air conditioners and deodorants.

Intellectually Browner seems to understand this. She was born on the edge of the Everglades. Now her childhood home is separated from the natural world by fifteen miles of Miami, so she can talk quite eloquently about the auto-dependent sprawl that is eroding our environment and that has so far defeated even those suburban communities, including some in Florida, that have tried to build mass‑transit systems. "It's not as simple as making a system that moves you from point A to point B," she says. "There's a subsystem that makes that system work: sidewalks. Minivans if it's pouring rain. A little grocery store on the corner so that if you're walking home you can grab a gallon of milk. If you don't have that kind of community development, people aren't going to get on that transportation system."

But Browner offers only the most limited answers for how to deal with this. One reason that inner cities don't redevelop, thus easing the pressure on outlying green space, she says, is that they have toxic‑waste sites not cleaned up under the Superfund‑though it's hard to believe that Superfund money will slow the momentum of our car culture. Or ask her about the changes that a huge cutback in fossil fuels might exact in our way of life, and she loses her normal fluency, managing to sound a good deal like her predecessors. "When you start looking at the global‑warming stuff, look at the various tools and mechanisms and steps, there are a lot of different things that have to be analyzed. The people who run the numbers on this stuff, it's very complicated stuff."

It's not fair to demand that Browner solve these crises, or even focus on them: The "traditional" environmental problems are more than enough work. In this case she is merely representative of the rest of us, so staggered by the enormity of the changes that we may face that we would rather spend our energy elsewhere.

Which is where Al Gore comes in.

George Bush called him Ozone Man, with the implication that real men worried about, say, Willie Horton but didn't bother themselves with huge increases in ultraviolet radiation. Someday the caricature may sound more like a salute‑Gore has been ahead of his time and his country for 20 years, the first successful politician to have a solid understanding of the Type B problems. Much of the international furor over the greenhouse effect dates from Senate hearings chaired by Gore in 1988 that highlighted the testimony of a NASA scientist James Hansen, who said that global warming was already under way. Gore protected Hansen from government muffling and jump‑started the process that led in a straight line to 1992's Rio Earth Summit, the high‑water mark of global environmental concern. And in his best‑selling book, Earth in the Balance, Gore writes that the new "organizing principle" for human civilization must be saving the environment.

Gore says he believes as strongly as ever in that sentiment. The environment "is the principal reason I am in public service," he says; though he spent much of his first several months as vice president "reinventing government," he still devotes "by far the most time" to environmental questions.

Most of that work, though, has been quiet. When he went on the David Letterman show in early September, it was to smash an overpriced federal ashtray, not to talk about carbon dioxide. The same month, Time magazine accused Gore of going AWOL on the environment.

The reason, he says, is timing. With the world's attention fixed on economic doldrums and post‑cold‑war crises, Gore says he is working patiently on what is currently politically possible‑such as the agreement with Detroit automakers to make within the decade a new generation of vehicles three times more efficient than what's now on the roads‑and waiting for the next window of opportunity.

"Part of the secret to bringing about necessary change is understanding the lulls when the public's concern is beneath the surface," he says. Hansen has predicted that the brief respite in the greenhouse effect caused by the eruption of the Philippines's Mount Pinatubo in 1992 is now ending and that the steady escalation of world tempera­tures should soon resume, to the point where the extra heat will be noticeable to the man in the street by decade's end. Or maybe it will be something else. "It's inevitable that some combination of events will produce a new surge of public concern," Gore says.

"Outside of the public view there's an enormous amount going on. I'm eager to talk about it," he says, "but unlike the Senate, there's an in­verse relationship between progress and publicity."

A widening circle of environmentalists and industrialists meet regularly with Gore. Some of the most intense activity maybe taking place on the committee designed to help us meet our treaty obligations from Rio, which include reducing carbon output to 1990 levels by the year 2000. But the next time there's a drought‑gouged summer like 1988, or some other unsettling evidence of the damage we're doing to our life‑support systems, he promises that the response from the federal government won't be "more research."

Gore compares the coming change to the fall of Communism: "When reformers started to try and change the Soviet Union, they could scarcely have imagined that they'd quickly cross a threshold and every government in Eastern Europe would fall in the space of six months," he says. "We will cross a threshold beyond which the process of destroying an acre of rain forest a second, or pumping gaseous garbage into this thin layer of atmosphere, and all other idiocies, will be revealed as absurd and unacceptable."

Assembling one's plans in semisecret, waiting to spring them when some crisis builds public support‑it sounds sort of like the Palestinians and Israelis meeting in Norway. This is clearly a risky strategy, and there's an eagerness among environmentalists to begin building this consensus now, and as publicly as possible. But is that realistic? When Clinton proposed his energy tax to Congress, deficit cutting was only half the payoff‑the tax was also supposed to spur conservation. The public response to any type of tax, though, was so angry that the administration was soon handing out exemptions to any industry that controlled a senator. By the time the budget finally passed, it contained only a 4.3‑cent‑per‑gallon tax on gasoline, which seems unlikely to put a dent in consumption.

Presidents and vice presidents and cabinet members may have a bully pulpit, but preachers must often rely on acts of God to shake the slumbering faithful. It almost certainly will take another crisis to get us moving again.

One is left to hope it will come soon ‑say, before 1996.