ALTHOUGH POLITICIANS tend to talk about "the environment" as if it were a single, easily defined topic, environmental issues range quite widely, from climate change to nuclear waste disposal to forest management. Nevertheless, it is possible to speak of environmental philosophies, and the two presidential candidates have, over long careers, shown that theirs are very different.
Certainly there is no doubt about President Bush's belief in the need to reduce environmental regulation in order to ease the constraints on industries most affected by it. Although the administration has made few dramatic changes, it has rewritten an extraordinary number of rules, for example, to allow older utilities to upgrade their facilities without adding pollution control equipment; to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon dioxide emissions, the most important source of "greenhouse gases"; to loosen the regulation of mercury emissions; to limit the amount of land that can be formally declared "wilderness"; to make logging easier in old-growth forests. The president himself has flip-flopped, as his campaign would put it, on the question of the urgency of climate change, first expressing interest in the issue, then walking away from it, then delaying discussion by proposing "further studies."
The White House argues that its measures are merely corrective, an attempt to reverse extreme actions taken in the past. On clean air issues, for example, officials say their goal is to create more reliable, predictable controls using market incentives, and to limit unpredictable lawsuits. But their enthusiasm both for markets and for simplification -- which we share -- has not been matched by an equivalent enthusiasm for making sure the air continues to get cleaner. That is why it has been so hard to take seriously their rhetoric about "clear skies."
By contrast, the record of Sen. John F. Kerry reflects a long and deep commitment to environmental regulation, although not necessarily a rigid or dogmatic one: In debating environmental votes with his staff and outsiders he does talk about the need to balance environmental and economic concerns. Still, his voting record is one of the most pro-environmentalist in the Senate. He has voted repeatedly for measures that would enforce strict observance of the Clean Air and Clean Water acts as well as wilderness protection. He has more than once helped defeat bills that would allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Mr. Kerry's environmental positions cannot be described as unusually creative: He has generally backed the regulatory consensus, which even supporters agree could usefully be updated. Yet that consensus has, over several decades, produced cleaner air and water, and preserved more wilderness. Simply rolling it back without replacing it would achieve nothing except a reversal of those gains. Far preferable would be a president interested in modernizing environmental rules without abandoning their ultimate goal: a better environment.
This is one in a series of editorials comparing the records and programs of the presidential candidates on important issues. Others can be found at www.washingtonpost.com/opinion.