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Too few true green moments

Americans who tuned in to the president's state of the union address last month must have been relieved to learn that the world is sitting pretty when it comes to the environment.

Everything is peachy.

What? Me worry?

There are no problems.

If there were environmental problems, President Bush certainly would have mentioned them. But in a 60-minute speech, he didn't once bring up overpopulation, global warming, ozone, polluted waters, energy needs and vanishing natural resources. In fact, things are going so well he suggested a 90-day moratorium on new business regulations. New regulations, among other things, might keep businesses from damaging the .

.

.

Well, you know.

The E-word.

Maybe he just forgot. Maybe his dog, or maybe John Sununu, sneaked into the East room and ate his notes. More likely, though, the president deliberately chose to ignore the grave problems facing the environment. President Bush has raised denial to an art form.

In 1988, he stood firmly and proudly on an environmental platform. He described himself as a "Teddy Roosevelt environmentalist." He pledged a no-net loss of wetlands. People who thought nothing could be done about the greenhouse effect, he declared, were underestimating "the White House effect." He was going to be the environmental president, by gum.

Since then he has spoken softly about the environment and seldom even carried a twig, much less a big stick.

Backed into a corner last week by overwhelming evidence on the growing hole in the ozone shield, Bush reversed himself. He ordered companies to start phasing out the dangerous gases.

It was one of his few true green moments. His administration has proposed re-writing the definition of wetlands to open more of that important habitat to drainage and development, including as many as 5-million acres in Florida. As for the greenhouse effect, global warming is still here. A scientific report issued a week before Bush's state of the union address confirmed earlier scientific estimates that the atmosphere will warm three to eight degrees in the next century if carbon dioxide levels double.

Other leading industrial governments, from Japan and Western Europe, have accepted a need to dramatically reduce greenhouse-causing carbon dioxide emissions. "The U.S. government stands alone in ignoring the scientific message," said Dr. Michael Oppenheimer, senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund.

But the president, the denial president, has been mostly quiet on the issue. If he were to acknowledge the implications of global warming, then people might expect leadership, or a plan, or a concession that he had been wrong. A plan might create an ecology of its own, raising questions about America's over-reliance on fossil fuels and its lack of commitment to conservation and alternative fuels in its energy policy.

Environmental problems, especially global ones, are daunting. There are no easy answers. We don't even know all the questions. But when the leader of the greatest nation on Earth plays ostrich it's plain terrifying.

Oddly enough, the men who want the president's job have been relatively silent on the matter of the planet's health, too. Only former California Gov. Jerry Brown bothered to attend the Leadership Forum on Global Warming in Tallahassee on Feb. 1. Brown's Democratic rivals did address the group by satellite, but they didn't think the environment was important enough to warrant a Florida trip. George Bush and his lone Republican rival, Patrick Buchanan, declined to participate in any way.

The president's democratic opponents know better. They've all had better-than-average environmental records. Perhaps they are afraid the president will call them nattering nabobs of negativism. By their silence the Democrats give credence to the president's denial of reality.

During hard economic times, many issues tend to fall by the wayside. Unfortunately, a healthy environment long ago stopped being a luxury. If our air becomes unfit to breathe, our water too foul to drink, and our atmosphere too warm to sustain the flora and fauna that feed us, nobody will have to worry about making a living.

The world in 1992 is a frightening place. But we've faced other frightful situations before. The key word is "faced."

Once upon a time, presidents trusted Americans enough to tell them the truth. Presidents told Americans that sacrifice might be necessary. Presidents had vision.

Abraham Lincoln led the nation through a civil war and legally ended slavery with his Emancipation Proclamation. Franklin Roosevelt said we had nothing to fear but fear itself, but he faced down the Depression. He had a plan. We survived.

This president doesn't seem to have a meaningful plan for solving any important problem, including the environment. Even worse, he denies the problems by pretending they don't exist or ridiculing them as insignificant or unproven.

Perhaps that's why Americans are so worried and pessimistic these days. They're smelling smoke, but all they hear from the White House is music that sounds suspiciously like fiddling.

Jeff Klinkenberg is a feature writer for the St. Petersburg Times.

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