Bush joins the lima green beans

Should American environmentalists be hanging their heads in shame? I ask the question because, last year, the Green Party here managed to bring about the ultimate electoral paradox: by putting up the 67-year-old Ralph Nader as its presidential candidate, the party saw to it that perhaps the most avowed anti-environment president in history was elected to the White House. Although Nader managed to secure around only 3 per cent of the nationwide vote last November - thus also failing to meet the 5 per cent required for federal funding in 2004 - that 3 per cent was enough to tip the balance nationally from Smug Al to Boy George.

It is safe to assume that, in Florida alone, the vast majority of the 97,419 votes won by Nader would have otherwise gone to Gore - thus easily handing overall victory to him, and sending Boy George back to the Governor's Mansion to execute yet more Texans. Given his stupendously successful career as a consumer advocate, Nader's self-indulgence left many Democrats (as well as Greens) fuming. But Nader was unapologetic. Gore, he said, "ran a poor campaign, failed to attract new voters, and remained a captive" of corporate interests.

True, true, Ralph - but did you really want to put Boy George in the White House? The answer is that Nader seemed never to care; to him, there was little to choose between the two candidates. Yet until election focus-group results apparently persuaded Gore to abandon his green credentials in crucial industrial swing states such as Ohio and Michigan, the Democrat candidate had made preserving the environment his core concern: he had even written books on the subject.

But Gore was terrified at coming over to swing voters as an eco-freak, and so gradually let his concerns about the environment fade away. That, plus Nader's intervention, let Boy George - a candidate heavily supported by oil, energy and gas interests and buttressed by his vice- presidential running-mate, Dick Cheney, fresh from the oil company Halliburton - sneak into the White House without a popular mandate. And Boy George had already made it known what was on his mind: frantic drilling for oil and gas in the precious Arctic National Wildlife Refuge of Alaska, plus a similarly furious pursuit of oil in Gulf Coast beds just a few miles from the beaches of Florida.

That was precisely the spirit in which he entered the White House last January. First, he backtracked on a last-minute law enacted by Bill Clinton, which would have lowered the amounts of arsenic allowed in the nation's drinking water ("the arsenic flap", as Boy George's circle still refers to it). Then he reneged on the Kyoto Protocol, saying it was unrealistic to expect the US, by 2012, to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 7 per cent below 1990 levels - especially when major industrial polluters such as China and India were exempt from Kyoto.

But, within a few months of assuming power, a funny thing started to happen to Boy George. To the alarm of his industrial backers, he started to backtrack on environmental issues, suddenly seeming to care deeply about the environment. This month, he announced that the drilling off Florida would now be confined to 1.5 million acres, instead of the six million he had originally wanted. Even Kid Jeb - the governor of Florida, and mindful of the uphill electoral battle he will face next year - had opposed his brother's original decision. Congressional Republicans have also made it clear that Boy George's gung-ho approach to the environment in Alaska and elsewhere is simply not on.

The result has been the first serious internecine warfare within Dubbya's White House, with the sharper of Boy George's advisers realising that the environment is a politically potent issue that could suddenly creep up and fatally wound Boy George. A New York Times-CBS poll showed that, by a margin of more than seven to one, Americans believe that Boy George is more concerned about protecting the interests of the energy industry than he is about the environment: hence Boy George's abrupt conversion to being one of what he still privately calls "the lima green beans".

But even before the end of June, no fewer than 25 major US cities had already experienced air quality this year that did not meet federal standards; Houston, in Boy George's home state, has now overtaken Los Angeles as the most smog-laden US city. And the nation, with just 5 per cent of the world's population, uses 25 per cent of its energy resources and emits 25 per cent of its carbon dioxide. Although it is argued that this is to be expected in a country that produces 25 per cent of the world's gross national product (the correct figure is 22 per cent), it is an immutable fact that the US is less efficient on energy conservation and pollution than the European Union or Japan.

All of which means that Boy George can now move in only one direction as far as the environment is concerned; he woefully miscalculated the public's attitude to his policies and has been forced to make his first substantial retreats. And Ralph Nader? "Whatever mistakes Gore made, we wouldn't even be talking about this if Nader hadn't run," says Senator Joe Biden, a possible Democrat candidate for 2004. It will take the US Green Party a long time to live down the story of the role it unwittingly played in the first US presidential election of the 21st century.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How long have we got?