Pretty Please With Incentives On Top

Last year, the Bush administration faced global scorn for rejecting the Kyoto climate change treaty. Now, it's proposing an alternative that will undoubtedly be laughed at around the world.

At the heart of the Bush plan is the idea that corporations and individuals will voluntarily reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The President thinks he can get companies like Enron, ExxonMobil and Halliburton to solve global warming just by saying "please."

Bush has rarely missed an opportunity to subsidize the energy industry, and his climate plan likewise offers tax breaks. But at less than $4 a year per American, these incentives are far too modest to make an impact.

In an apparent nod to the fact that a voluntary initiative stands little chance of actually reducing emissions, the plan introduces Enron-style fuzzy math to create an aura of progress. It calls for decreases in what Bush calls greenhouse gas intensity. This convoluted concept would let emissions increase at a fraction of the rate of economic growth. In other words, the goal is to decrease the amount of emissions per million dollars of economic output.

Yet for decades, energy use (and thus greenhouse gas pollution) has grown more slowly than the economy. The new calculus enables Bush to take credit for that slower rate of increase, and at election time may well dupe citizens already befuddled by the climate change debate. Meanwhile, the United States would continue to emit more pollution each year. The twisted math would do nothing to address climate change.

If that sounds arcane, imagine a two-pack-a-day smoker with lung disease congratulating himself for only increasing his cigarette intake at a fraction of the rate that his wealth grows. He'll still die of cancer, just as the United States will still be the world's biggest climate change culprit.

Is a voluntary solution to one of the world's most ominous environmental threats really even worth debating? As ardent free-market capitalists, the Bushies surely understand that voluntary pollution programs fail for the same reason that communism did: both use as a motive some wishy-washy sense of civic responsibility. In the era of rolling blackouts and shadowy Cayman Island partnerships named after Star Wars characters, shouldn't the president be ashamed of a plan that assumes energy executives will act like boy scouts?

Even the most straight-laced companies won't spend money to deter climate change just because the government asks nicely. (A few already do for public relations reasons, or because they understand that efficiency is good for the bottom line, but those companies are too few to make an impact). On the contrary, publicly held corporations are legally bound to maximize shareholder value. They face the wrath of angry shareholders if they pour millions into voluntary environmental programs that don't offer immediate payback.

Bush knows from experience that such voluntary initiatives are a farce. As governor of Texas, he faced an urban air quality crisis. Regulators advised him to crack down on the state's old industrial stinkpots. But those stinkpots just happened to belong to very powerful political patrons (some of whom now sit on Bush's cabinet, like Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill). Instead, Bush championed a voluntary plan cooked up behind closed doors by Exxon and Marathon Oil (see related story). The plan became law, but failed to make breathing any easier in Texas. Soon after Bush left for Washington, the legislature in Austin replaced Bush's voluntary law with a mandatory one.

For Bush, however, the voluntary scheme was a resounding success even if it didn't reduce pollution. It helped catapult him from a failed oilman and inexperienced politician into a darling of the powerful oil and energy industries. They, in turn, raised record-breaking gobs of cash for Bush's presidential bid. Now it's payback time.

Just like in Texas, public interest advocate Peter Altman sees ExxonMobil's fingerprints all over Bush's new plan. Altman, who runs Campaign ExxonMobil, an environmental group, used Texas' open records provisions to dig up documents that revealed Exxon's role in writing the Texas clean air bill. He suspects that Bush once again relied heavily on the oil company for its ideas, if not for the details of its plan.

"The most telling [evidence] is that the Bush administration's proposal for climate change and ExxonMobil's are virtually identical," says Altman. According to the British campaign, the Bush plan "mirrors ExxonMobil's demands on climate change," calling for more research, voluntary action and emissions linked to economic growth.

ExxonMobil declined's request for comment, but British newspaper reports suggest that the company had early knowledge of Bush's plan, and is delighted with it. Back in October 2001, while most Americans were preoccupied with the war in Afghanistan, ExxonMobil Executive Vice President Rene Dahan told the Financial Times that Bush's plan "will not be very different from what you are hearing from us."

Then on January 22, 2002 CEO Lee Raymond flacked for it in London weeks before the president released it publicly, the London Guardian reported. Raymond (whom the newspaper calls "the most ecologically challenged man alive") visited Prime Minister Tony Blair to "persuade [him] not to join the chorus of international disapproval" over Bush's plan.

The evidence linking Bush and ExxonMobil may be circumstantial, but it will probably be the best the public will get. The Bush White House is famous for stonewalling journalists. And long-standing rules that restrict access to presidential documents would block an investigation like the one that turned up Bush's secret deal with Exxon in Austin. That is, unless Congress gets involved.

ExxonMobil's role aside, what's truly contemptuous about Bush's voluntary proposal is that it's not really new at all. Back in 1992, President George Herbert Walker Bush signed an agreement from the Rio Earth Summit that called for voluntary greenhouse gas reductions. Yet emissions increased, and so a few years later civilized nations called for a firmer approach. That resulted in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which last year was embraced by over 160 nations -- excluding the world's biggest polluter, the United States. The younger Bush is merely re-packaging what failed in 1992.

Philip E. Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, calls the plan "another faith-based initiative" that depends on the "faith that major corporations will line up to volunteer cuts in their carbon pollution."

"This is the biggest payoff yet to the corporate executives who financed the president's campaign," says Clapp.

David Case is the executive editor of


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