Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

What 'The American President' can say to environmentalists about ozone, politics

Two plot points in the 1995 movie "The American President" are similar to points driving a sticky dispute in American environmental politics. The first is that fossil fuels contribute mightily to a warming climate. The other is that environmentalists now seem to face a choice between a rock and a hard place as they assess Obama's green bona fides. 

My mom was vulnerable to Aaron Sorkin's warmly reassuring charms when she was having chemo, so I rewatched "The American President" a lot a few years ago. In which: a lobbyist named Sydney Ellen Wade of Virginia, working for the NRDC-knockoff GDC, lobbies President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) to back a bill that would require 20 percent reduction in fossil fuel emissions. three years in to his first term, the president's not looking for nasty fights as he eyes an election year. His chief of staff, Martin Sheen-playing-a-guy-named-A.J., tells the GDC, "The environment has known no greater ally in the White House than Andrew Shepherd." To which Sydney Ellen Wade says, "Hardly an impressive distinction, A.J." Bad for the GDC is that the president doesn't take seriously Sydney Ellen Wade's threat to shop for a new candidate come re-election.

In the present: ground level ozone comes from chemicals including volatile organic compounds that react to sunlight. "Motor vehicle exhaust, industrial emissions, and chemical solvents are the major sources of these chemicals," according to the EPA's website. The agency has looked at tightening these rules since 2008. 

Last Friday President Obama stunned greens by backing off a tighter ozone standard. EPA's proposal is in concord with science that's been around since the Bush Administration; science bolstered earlier this year by a nearly-thousand page report connecting spikes in AND long-term exposure to ground-level ozone with premature death. 

The President said he was taking this action in the interest of "reducing regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty, particularly as our economy continues to recover." Reference to the economy sets up environmental regulation against jobs at a time when polling shows that voters care way more about the economy, about taxes, even about health care.  This would seem to be a step away from air quality lobbyists' efforts to link lax air regulation to higher health care costs; something we've seen in California, and something Southland greens have argued is important to DC.  

Back to "The American President": the GDC didn't have to decide what to do about its threat. The film ends with the President dating an environmental lobbyist, who may or may not achieve the desired cuts. But another line I remember from that movie happens when a pollster says to a George-Stephanopolous knockoff played by Michael J. Fox, "One thing at a time." Fox says, "We don't have time for one thing at a time." Environmentalists may have to side with either that pollster or Michael J. Fox. They probably will have an opportunity to put their campaign skills where their values are - just as they may be figuring out if they actually will shop for another candidate.