POINTS THAT DIDN’T QUITE MAKE THE COLUMN:
* In 2001, the FDA warned pregnant women not to eat Great Lakes fish because airborne mercury settles on the Great Lakes. Since then, according to daytime talk shows and to some environmentalists, airborne mercury from U.S. power plants has been an incredible menace. Mercury emissions from power plants should be regulated. But perspective is missing from the debate.
United States power plants account for around 3 percent of new mercury being emitted to the environment. In 2002, and again in 2005, George W. Bush proposed to reduce U.S. power plant emissions of mercury by 70 percent — which would have reduced the U.S. power plant share of environmental mercury to around 2 percent. Environmentalists and editorialists said the proposed Bush cut was far too little, that a 90 percent cut was needed. But because American power plants are such a small slice of the problem to begin with, reducing their mercury emissions 90 percent would have cut the U.S. power plant share of environmental mercury to around 1.5 percent — barely different from what Bush proposed.
So because of a fight about whether a problem should be reduced to 2 percent or 1.5 percent, nothing at all was done. Environmentalists didn’t discuss how small the power-plant contribution is to mercury exposure, because that would undercut scare-tactics fundraising.
* The New York Times often bungles environmental reporting: its coverage of mercury and arsenic has been scandalously bad. Throughout the eight Bush years, the Times front page and editorial page consistently suggested that White House policies would allow smog and acid rain to rise, and basically skipped the politically inconvenient complication that under Bush, smog and acid rain were declining.
For instance, this 2004 New York Times Magazine cover story announced “the undoing of 30 years of clean air policy” and declared George W. Bush engaging in a sinister “radical transformation of the nation’s environmental laws.” The 8,000-word article was a model of dishonesty. It simply did not mention that all forms of air pollution — other than greenhouse gases, which Congress has never voted to regulate — were declining under Bush, as they also declined under Bill Clinton. A year later when statistics showed a drop in smog in the very part of the country where the Times magazine article said smog would increase — what happened to that “undoing” of clean air policy? — the paper buried the story on page A10.
This isn’t just a journalism history lesson. Polls show Americans believe air pollution is getting worse, when for a generation, air pollution has been in decline. One reason for the public perception dichotomy is that major news organizations such as the Times downplay or simply don’t report environmental progress.
The best argument for greenhouse gas regulations is that smog and acid-rain regulations worked — so greenhouse gas regulations will work, too! People won’t come around to that point of view until the press corps stops pretending, for ideological reasons, that all environmental news is negative.