George W. Bush: The Un-science Guy
In 1984, Ronald Reagan's reelection team aired a fiendishly clever campaign ad. The television spot showed a large bear lumbering through the forest, and a disembodied male voice warned, "There is a bear in the woods. For some people, the bear is easy to see. Others don't see it at all. Some people say the bear is tame, others say it is vicious and dangerous. Since no one can really be sure who is right, isn't it smart to be as strong as the bear -- if there is a bear." Then the image shifted to a hunter facing the bear and the words appeared: "President Reagan: Prepared for Peace."
That Reagan commercial, which became a classic of political propaganda, effectively and elegantly captured the arguments of Cold War hawks. Who could know about the Soviet Union's true intentions? The prudent course was to assume the Russkies were bent on world domination and hankering for (nuclear) war and, then, act and arm accordingly. Why risk being wrong? You could end up bear food.
Of course, the ad was simplistic (a fitting tribute to its main beneficiary). Arms control is a bit more complicated than grizzly hunting. And, as it turned out, there was no bear in the woods to fear. The real bear was sclerotic, bleeding internally, and near collapse. Still, the spot suggested conservatives believed in being responsible and planning for worst-case scenarios. Such caution, though, rarely extends beyond conventional national security topics. Which brings us to global warming.
As George W. Bush prepared for his recent trip to Europe, he and his advisers continued to dismiss the science underlying the calls for reducing greenhouse gases. The general consensus in the field of climate science, reflected in the work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (an international body comprised of hundreds of scientists), is that global temperatures are on the rise -- and may climb 10 degrees Fahrenheit this century -- and that this increase is, to some degree, a result of human-induced emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases. While there is a small number of contrarian scientists who either argue otherwise or question the basic models, it is undeniable that most experts concur there is a bear in the woods.
Moreover, it is clear that the consequences of an extra 10 degrees would be horrific -- rising sea levels, the dislocation of coastal populations, the spread of tropical diseases, the eradication of species, severe weather, drought, disruption of ocean currents -- and that reducing the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would require implementing extensive measures (mainly dramatic reductions in emissions) soon and maintaining these remedies over a long period of time.
So where is that bear-in-the-woods attitude now? Some people say global warming is a danger. Some people say it is not. Since no one can be really sure -- until it's too late to do anything about it -- isn't it smart to address the threat?
Instead, Bush calls for more studies -- even after the latest study confirmed the existing consensus. On June 6, as Bush was skimming through Let's Go Europe and practicing the pronunciation of the names of Europe's leaders (did his tutors skip Spain?), the National Academy of Sciences released a report on global warming that Bush had requested. Bush did not have to read too far to get the drift. Here are the opening sentences:
"Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise. Temperatures are, in fact, rising. The changes observed over the last several decades are likely mostly due to human activities, but we cannot rule out that some significant part of these changes are also a reflection of natural variability. Human-induced warming and associated sea level rises are expected to continue through the 21st century."If Bush reached the last paragraph of the first page, he would have read, "The committee generally agrees with the assessment of human-caused climate change presented in the IPCC...report."
It's instructive to compare the actual words of the NAS report to what Bush's press secretary Ari Fleischer said about the study that day. "It concludes," Fleischer asserted, "that the Earth is warming. But it is inconclusive on why -- whether it's man-made causes or whether it's natural causes." That's not spinning. That is lying. Read those opening lines. They are not inconclusive.
The next day Fleischer fine-tuned his message. He now said that Bush welcomed the report and agreed that temperatures are on the rise. (The eleven top climate scientists who wrote the report, including the Nobel laureate in the group, must have felt reassured.) But Fleischer fixated on the fact that "uncertainties remain" as to how much of the rise in global temperatures can be directly attributed to human activity.
This was a more sophisticated exercise in spin. Focus on the question marks, not the exclamation points. Concede human-caused warming is underway, but dwell on the finding that scientists cannot precisely measure how much of the warming is the result of cars, power plants, and the like. It was a signal that the Bushies were going to stick to their know-nothing position -- the science is still iffy -- in order to justify their opposition to mandatory reductions in atmosphere-warming emissions.
Four days later, Bush followed Fleischer's lead. As he was leaving town to meet with European allies pissed at his rejection of the Kyoto protocol on global warming, Bush delivered a statement on global warming and emphasized the unknowns: "We do not know how much our climate could, or will change in the future. We do not know how fast change will occur, or even how some of our actions could impact it."
True enough. But he seemed to be saying that perfect knowledge was required before remedies could be adopted. (That's not his standard for proceeding with the construction and deployment of a national missile defense system that has yet to be tested successfully.) Bush also decried the Kyoto treaty for being "not based upon science." He had a point -- unintentionally. Many climate scientists believe that the emissions reductions mandated by Kyoto do not go far enough to heal the atmosphere. But Bush did not bother to explain his "not based upon science" claim. It is merely one of those repeat-it-often-enough-and-it-may-stick lines.
On this occasion, Bush announced that his administration was indeed going to do something on global warming. It would research the subject further. And Bush is willing to devote $25 million to that effort -- after having cut the budget for research into technology that could address global warming.
Look at it this way: hundreds of billions of dollars for tax cuts for the rich, $25 million for the planet. That's less than one-quarter of the money Bush raised for his presidential campaign. Does that mean Bush believes placing himself in the White House was a more important endeavor than addressing a global environmental threat? As the SIerra Club's Dan Becker quipped, "When your house is on fire, you don't go to the library to take out a book on how hot fire gets. You put out the fire."
The Europeans, no surprise, didn't buy Bush's weak brew and insisted they would stick with the Kyoto process. For his (almost comical) part, Bush kept reiterating that he took global warming seriously -- and then declined to propose serious measures to counter the problem. How long does he think he can pull off this act -- note the danger, do nothing? Until Coppertone stock splits and New Orleans exists only as an Atlantis-like theme park?
Bush may not be troubled by the disconnect between his claim of concern and his lack of action. But it probably does get to some of the less facile thinkers of his administration. During an interview on CNN, EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman looked quite uncomfortable when asked if she and Secretary of State Colin Powell had pushed Bush to acknowledge the need for mandatory emission controls. "Well, I think it's a stage thing," she replied. "And there are those of us at the table who believe in -- because we hear it so much from others -- that you need to have some -- there -- there, and that comes when you have some standards and some targets, and eventually perhaps something mandatory."
Big news! A stuttering EPA chief contradicts her President and says mandatory reductions are necessary. Is she going to attempt to persuade Bush? "I will continue to pursue the things that I think are in the best interests of the country and the president."
Sorry, Ms. Whitman, those "things" do appear mutually exclusive. Consider her predicament. She accepts the globe faces a severe problem. She accepts the common-sense notion that the best possible way to deal with the problem is to restrict actions that contribute to the problem. Yet she works for a guy who says, no way, Prime Minister Jose Anzar. (That's Aznar, Mr. President). How much inside-the-tent battling can Whitman wage and lose before she has an obligation to resign and speak out? It's a policy soap opera: will she serve the interests of one man or those of the country and planet?
The bear's there. The scientists see it. The Europeans see it. Whitman and Powell see it. Bush doesn't. Shouldn't that be end of story? Does a you-know-what defecate in the woods?