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Previously in Politics & Prose:

How Big Business Got a Soul (March 1999)
A recent book by Roland Marchand shows how the hated monopolies of the late nineteenth century used advertising to give themselves a makeover -- and to shape public opinion to their advantage

What Work Costs Us (February 1999)
Richard Sennett's The Corrosion of Character examines the demoralizing effects of the new "flexible" economy.

More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound.

Join the conversation in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

Related feature:

Will We Survive? (January 1999)
Our environmental future looks bleak. What can we do about it? Mark Hertsgaard, author of Earth Odyssey, traveled around the world in search of answers.

From the archive:

"A Good Climate for Investment," by Ross Gelbspan (June 1998)
Reducing reliance on carbon for energy -- to safeguard our atmosphere and our climate -- could bring about not personal deprivation but a worldwide economic boom.

Playing Politics With the Planet
A forecast of the 2000 election predicts squalls and continued global warming

by Jack Beatty

April 14, 1999

The 2000 election campaign could turn global warming, the gravest threat to civilization in the next century, into an issue of party politics, frustrating action to preserve the conditions of continued life on earth. This is especially likely if Al Gore is the Democratic presidential candidate and George W. Bush, an oil-state governor whose campaign would be heavily financed by the energy sector, is the Republican candidate. In that increasingly plausible scenario, Gore's 1992 book, Earth in the Balance, may well be used to paint Gore as an environmental extremist (which he isn't) and global warming as a reckless theory (which it isn't).

Earth in the Balance does indeed lend itself to mischievous use. With an impolitic though defensible extremity of statement, Gore wrote that saving the environment needed to be "the central organizing principle for civilization," that global warming was "perhaps the greatest danger this country has ever faced," and that going on as if climate change was not already happening risked "an environmental holocaust without precedent."

The Clinton-Gore Administration, to be sure, has mostly governed as if Gore had never written those words. Notably, it took only modest steps on global warming at the Kyoto conference held in 1997, finding it easier to adopt "rhetoric in lieu of genuine change" (to use a phrase from Earth in the Balance) than to confront the energy and automobile lobbies. But Bush, or any other Republican nominee, will ignore what the Administration has done and will instead focus on what Gore wrote before becoming Bill Clinton's choice for Vice President. Prior to the 1992 Earth Summit held in Rio, President George Bush produced a lapidary sentence that his son will be hard pressed to surpass if global warming becomes an issue in 2000: "The American way of life is not negotiable."

The Republicans pounced on Earth in the Balance once before, in the 1992 election campaign, when Vice President Dan Quayle, citing Earth as if it were The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, claimed Gore wanted to eliminate the automobile. In fact Gore was not insane. He wanted to eliminate the internal-combustion engine. Seven years later foreign automakers are making a commercial opportunity out of moving down that road. Toyota, for example, will soon be releasing the Prius, with a part-gasoline, part-battery-charged engine, and Daimler-Chrysler predicts that by 2003 it will be selling 100,000 cars a year powered exclusively by hydrogen fuel cells. These green developments in the automotive camp vindicate a poll-tested Clinton-Gore argument that economic growth versus environmental sanity is a false choice. The environment is not an invariable drag on the economy. It could be the next economic frontier -- if the candidates in the 2000 election let it be.

Just after the Second World War, Republicans and Democrats reached a historic consensus over post-war security policy in Europe when they accepted the Marshall Plan and U.S. membership in NATO. Arthur Vandenberg, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a former isolationist, led his party into the world, famously saying, "Politics stops at the water's edge." Today, faced with the environmental equivalent of the Soviet threat, we cannot afford a campaign-quickened split over the reality of climate change or the resulting necessity of changing the profligate American way of life. Politics should stop at the planet's edge.

Join the conversation in the Politics & Society conference of
Post & Riposte.

More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound.

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The World According to Peter Drucker (1997) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992).

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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