Bush's Global-Warming Smog

Welcome to Political Jeopardy. The category is "How Dumb Do They Think We Are?" The first answer: "The biggest insult to the intelligence of American citizens in recent days." It's only a fifty-dollar question, for the reply is too damn obvious: George W. Bush's new global warming plan. And, no, that shouldn't read "anti"-global warming plan, for his proposal will literally add fuel to the fire.

Before continuing with this rant, some background. During the 2000 campaign, Bush declared that were he to win he would reduce America's emissions of carbon dioxide, a leading greenhouse gas. This statement was surprising, given that Bush seemed to be the love-slave of Corporate America, and much of this community has opposed mandatory reductions of global-warming gases, which is the centerpiece of the 1997 Kyoto accord on climate change.

These days, business-oriented conservatives in Washington, who were shocked by Bush's pronouncement on carbon dioxide, believe they know how such apostasy made it through the doors of his campaign headquarters. They blame Ken Lay, for Enron had been one firm hot for Kyoto. Its natural gas division would benefit greatly, if the United States and other industrialized nations had to cut back their consumption of fossil fuels, and Enron's wheeling-dealing pirates were all set to take advantage of any Kyoto-encouraged system to trade emissions credits.

But that was then. After Bush slipped into the White House, a policy dispute broke out. Silly ol' Christine Todd Whitman, Bush's EPA administrator, actually believed Bush had meant what he said, and so did Colin Powell, the new secretary of state. They argued that the United States, which produces about 25 percent of the planet's human-source greenhouse gases, should stick with the Kyoto process, which was endorsed by every other major industrial nation. Most everyone else in Bush country said, take a hike.

And that's what Bush did, shooting the rest of the world the finger and essentially telling countries like England, the Netherlands, Bangladesh and Micronesia, "who cares if rising sea levels threaten your people, there's not going to be any sacrifice in the U.S. of A. to help you. Sayonara, baby."

(It's not clear, though, how much sacrifice would be required; in the past thirty years the United States has cut much pollution without derailing the economy.) After an uproar ensued, Bush grudgingly conceded that scientific research does indicate global warming is under way and poses a genuine threat, and he promised to devise an alternative to the Kyoto process.

At that point, it was hard to figure what Bush would do. His fundamental objection to the Kyoto accord was that it established mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that compel the industrialized countries to cut these pollutants below 1990 levels by 2010. (And these reductions did not go as far as many climate scientists advocated.) If the problem is that human endeavors are spewing too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, how could Bush design a solution that was not based on reducing emissions? No shocker here: he couldn't.

On February 14, Bush unveiled his plan. Speaking at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Bush said, "I reaffirm America's commitment ... to stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that will prevent dangerous human interference with the climate." Nothing wrong with that. But his next sentence was the give-away: "Our immediate goal is to reduce America's greenhouse gas emissions relative to the size of our economy."

See the sleight of hand? Relative to the size of our economy. Since the U.S. economy is growing, even if it's a bit sluggish of late, this means emissions can continue to rise, as long as the rate of emissions increase is below the rate of economic growth. Bush is not calling for real reductions, he is pushing for slower increases. Talk about accounting tricks. It's as if he hired Arthur Andersen to craft his global warming plan.

And Bush intends to achieve his "goal" through voluntary action -- meaning tax credits to encourage companies and individuals to decrease emissions. His plan would grant companies that produce greenhouse gases credits for merely monitoring and reporting their emissions, not reducing their output, and these firms could then sell their pollution credits to other companies, which could use the credits to increase their emissions.

Bush won't force a single greenhouse gas polluter to do a thing. As Democratic Senator John Kerry -- who is pondering running for president as a pro-environment candidate -- puts it, "The notion that an entire industry will volunteer to significantly cut their pollution is pure fantasy. As we have in almost every aspect of environmental law, we need to set firm and achievable targets, to create markets for new technologies and innovation, and enforce those targets. The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Safe Drinking Act have worked not because they were well-intentioned but because they are mandatory."

Back to Bush's speech: "My administration is committed to cutting our nation's greenhouse gas intensity -- how much we emit per unit of economic activity -- by 18 percent over the next ten years. This will set America on a path to slow the growth of our greenhouse gas emissions and, as science justifies, to stop and then reverse the growth of emissions." Note the artful (as in dodger) use of the phrase "cutting our nation's greenhouse gas intensity." To the casual listener, it may sound as if Bush is demanding a decrease in global warming emissions. But he is endorsing an increase. Some policy wonk well earned his paycheck by composing this Orwellian malarkey.

Bush even hints that there may not be a scientific basis for halting the growth in U.S. emissions -- a proposition that most climate scientists would find laughable. The National Academy of Sciences has said global warming could lead to "large, abrupt and unwelcome" changes in the climate, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- which is made up of 2500 scientists -- warns human-induced global warming could cause average temperatures to rise by up to 10 degrees this century.

In a way, Bush is selling out his own father. Ten years ago, President Bush the Elder signed on to the Rio Agreement, which committed the United States to cutting back to 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Since then, U.S. emissions have gone up 14 percent. Bush's proposal would add to that. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, which based its calculations on the White House's own data, emissions will increase another 14 percent in the coming decade under the Bush plan. (In his speech, Bush also called for mandatory restrictions on three power-plant pollutants not related to climate change -- mercury, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides -- but his plan would delay by ten years cuts now required by the Clean Air Act.)

At NOAA, Bush said that if "by 2012 our progress [on global warming emissions] is not sufficient and sound science justifies further action, the United States will respond with additional measures," such as more "voluntary measures." 2012? That is a convenient date for him. By then -- if he is lucky and the atmosphere is unlucky -- Bush will be three years gone from Washington, having left the next guy (or gal) holding an ever-expanding large bag of hot air.

"Addressing global climate change will require a sustained effort over many generations," Bush noted. That's misleading, suggesting there's plenty of time. The scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say that dramatic effort must begin with this generation and that if strong steps are not taken soon, the opportunity to redress global warming may be lost. Climate science is an incredibly complex field, but think of human-induced atmospheric change hitting a critical mass point at which various chain reactions are triggered that cannot be undone.

Bush is pulling a flim-flam, acting like he's for reducing greenhouse gases, but providing cover for further emissions. He is hiding behind the smog of toxic rhetoric.

David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation.


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