Bush's Green Flip-Flop

Wow! The last few weeks have given those of us trying to follow the Bush administration's position on climate change a wild roller-coaster ride.

We began the month of February with nothing but positive signs -- including indications that we had a Treasury secretary, a U.S. EPA head, and a national security adviser intent on actually trying to do something about global warming. (This is in stark contrast to the previous administration, in which Treasury heads Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers were actively hostile to the idea of a U.S. commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger was apparently uninterested in the problem, and EPA Administrator Carol Browner generally avoided the issue as much as possible, reportedly because she regarded it as too politically risky.)

New Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill laid down his marker immediately. In President Bush's first Cabinet meeting, O'Neill distributed copies of a speech he had given in 1998 in which he argued that delaying action to stem global warming by only a few years could pose a "real danger to civilization" (Houston Chronicle, 26 Feb 2001).

Many of those who have met with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice say that she, too, is interested in environmental issues and seems intent on trying to devise a workable agreement with the Europeans. And finally, EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman has in recent weeks made some very encouraging statements on global warming.

During the campaign, Bush forwarded a little-publicized proposal to phase in caps on power plant emissions for four different pollutants: CO2, mercury, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides. This proposal represented the first time either presidential candidate had called for direct regulation of CO2 emissions. Rumors swirled that Bush was planning to recommend the emissions caps in his speech before Congress on 27 Feb., a notion that made the conservative wing of the party apoplectic.

On the eve of Bush's speech, Whitman appeared on CNN's "Crossfire" and quite clearly reaffirmed the administration's intention to cap CO2 emissions: "George Bush was very clear during the course of the campaign that he believed in a multipollutant strategy, and that includes CO2. ... [The president] has been very clear that the science is good on global warming. It does exist. There are problems that we as a world face from global warming and to the extent that introducing CO2 to the discussion is going to have an impact on global warming, that's an important step to take" (CNN.com, 26 Feb 2001).

After appearing before a Senate committee the next day, Whitman reiterated the conviction that the science was settled on the issue of climate change: "There's no question but that global warming is a real phenomenon, that it is occurring. ... And while scientists can't predict where the droughts will occur, where the flooding will occur precisely or when, we know those things will occur." She refused to rule out the option of a cap on C02, and added that the Bush administration was committed to trying to make the Kyoto treaty on climate change work: "This president is very sensitive to the issue of global warming. We expect the United States to be a partner" (AP Worldstream, 27 Feb 2001).

Hasty alerts were sent from the Greening Earth Society, created and largely funded by coal-based utilities, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, ground zero for opponents of action on climate change. The message: People should immediately call and email the White House, asking Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to delete any reference to the proposed multipollutant strategy from the president's speech. Perhaps as a result, Bush did not mention the proposal in the speech, though a "multipollutant approach" was still referred to in his budget blueprint.

Then, over the first weekend of March, environment ministers from Russia and the world's top seven industrialized nations met in Trieste, Italy, to discuss global warming. Whitman apparently convinced the Europeans that the Bush administration was committed to working constructively with them on the problem. "Ms. Whitman was very positive about climate change being a global issue, about the scientific evidence and that the Kyoto framework was something they should work within," a senior British official said (Reuters, 04 Mar 2001). Together, the G8 ministers renewed their pledge to work towards an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. All the ministers, including Whitman, signed the final document, which said, "We commit ourselves ... to strive to reach an agreement on outstanding political issues and to ensure in a cost-effective manner the environmental integrity of the Kyoto Protocol" (AP, 04 Mar 2001).

Right Wing Sees Red

All this talk further infuriated the right-wing base of the Republican Party, triggering outraged calls and emails to the White House. Business representatives from the key coal and utility interests went into action. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who had lately been sounding surprisingly conciliatory on the Kyoto Protocol, and three other Senate Republicans -- Larry Craig of Idaho, Pat Roberts of Kansas, and Mike Enzi of Wyoming -- sent Bush a highly critical letter, asking him to clarify his position and arguing that there was still scientific uncertainty as to the cause of global warming. (In the letter, the Senators even referred to the Hansen brouhaha of a few months past).

Another message went out by email from Myron Ebell of CEI: "We have learned from contacts at EPA and the White House that Cheney's energy task force plans to announce (or decide?) something tomorrow morning about regulating carbon dioxide. We ... must go all out once again to share our concerns with every contact we've got. In particular we need to get our friends on the Hill to intervene." Finally, in a weekly policy meeting, Cheney told the senators present that the campaign pledge to control CO2 was "a mistake," and that the administration was preparing a letter that would say CO2 was not a pollutant (AP and Reuters, 13 Mar 2001).

Sure enough, late on Tuesday, the letter went out. It was even worse than expected -- a total slam against Whitman, the environmentalists, and even those Republican moderates in Congress who have been putting together their own bill on CO2 reductions from power plants. (The full text of Bush's letter is conveniently posted on the website of the Global Climate Coalition, the main industry lobby group opposing action on climate change.)

In the letter, Bush noted that his campaign proposal had been in error, since CO2 is not a "pollutant" according to the Clean Air Act. He also referred to a December study by the Department of Energy, which, in his words, concluded that "caps on carbon dioxide emissions as part of a multiple emissions strategy would lead to an even more dramatic shift from coal to natural gas for electric power generation and significantly higher electricity prices." These caps were a concern, he wrote, particularly in the West: "At a time when California has already experienced energy shortages, and other Western states are worried about price and availability of energy this summer, we must be very careful not to take actions that could harm consumers." Yet, as Elizabeth Shogren of the Los Angeles Times (14 Mar 2001) immediately pointed out, California is "much less dependent on coal for power than most of the country," with only about one-eighth of its power coming from coal-fired plants.

The Bush letter was also vehement in its categorical opposition to the Kyoto Protocol, calling it "an unfair and ineffective means of addressing global climate change concerns" -- in essence, contradicting the thrust of the G8 document that Whitman had signed onto just nine days before. Bush even backtracked on the science, arguing that the "state of scientific knowledge of the causes of, and solutions to, global climate change" was "incomplete."

Glenn Kelly, the executive director of the Global Climate Coalition, said the White House had received "a lot of communications" from opponents of efforts to control greenhouse gases. "Fortunately, the president responded quickly" (New York Times, 14 Mar 2001). Whether it was this sort of direct pressure that caused the president to cave so quickly is as yet unknown. Some White House officials immediately floated the explanation that the reversal was due to the efforts of senators from the Midwest, who threatened to oppose Bush's huge tax cut if their concerns on this issue weren't addressed.

Ebell of CEI immediately sent around an email congratulating his allies, but letting them know that their work was far from finished: "President Bush and Vice President Cheney have made the right decision on regulating CO2 with a little good advice from their friends. We have won a famous victory, and everyone should congratulate themselves on the work they did to achieve this end. I encourage all of you to send out press statements congratulating Bush. (This, after all, could be a turning point in the war to save industrial civilization from itself.)"

He also sent out a special thanks to former Rep. David McIntosh (R-Ind.) and Marlo Lewis (chair emeritus of the Cooler Heads Coalition and now with Reason Public Policy Institute) for helping to initiate the Energy Department study "that gave the administration the cover they needed to get out of the dead end they had blundered into."

Ebell then added:

Although we have won Round Two, Round Three has already started and we are losing. Round Three is about staffing the key global warming and Kyoto policy positions in the administration. Annie Pesonk [sic, Petsonk] of the Environmental Defense Fund has apparently been appointed to a dual position at [the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Science and Technology Policy] and the National Security Council to coordinate Kyoto policy. While grassroots opposition denied John Turner the appointment as deputy secretary of interior, he is now apparently the front-runner for assistant secretary of state for oceans and international agreements. And Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill has urged President Bush in a memo to have Michael Oppenheimer of Environmental Defense Fund put in charge of briefing the president on global warming science. ... So we have a lot of work to do. I urge all of you take a simple message to your contacts in the Bush-Cheney administration: Everyone appointed to a key job should be fully on board with the president's opposition to Kyoto and to regulating carbon dioxide. ...
So the fight is not over, at least from the right wing. Where this leaves Whitman, O'Neill, and the Republican delegates -- Sens. James Jeffords of Vermont and Susan Collins of Maine, and Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of New York -- who were just about to introduce legislation requiring limits on CO2 emissions from power plants is unclear. Many of these Republicans represent environmentally conscious constituents, as well as more moderate industry interests that are pressing for some sort of action on CO2, if only so that businesses facing major investments in plant modification or construction can know with some certainty their regulatory futures.

One thing is certain: The Europeans will not take this lying down. High-level climate negotiations are due to resume in Bonn on 16 Jul. The Europeans have already threatened to ratify the Kyoto Protocol by July 2002, and if they can get Russia and Japan to join them, they can bring the agreement into force without U.S. participation. The Bush administration would then have no input on crafting or modifying the agreement, and our country would become the lone renegade outlaw on climate, with future repercussions that can only be imagined.

Leonie Haimson co-authored "The Way Things Really Are: Debunking Rush Limbaugh on the Environment," and edited "Common Questions on Climate Change" for the U.N. Environment Program.

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