Calling Bush's Bluff on Global Warming
So G.W. Bush has had his conversion. He now believes global warming is a danger and we ought to do something about it. Call him Global Warming Bush.
The reaction of world leaders and environmentalists to Bush's announcement last week that he has a global warming plan (with no targets and no timelines) was mostly skeptical. Until now, the president has been the "Denier-in-Chief," concerned mostly with deleting climate concerns from the scientific reports and action agendas of federal agencies and doing his utmost to derail international efforts to tackle global warming, like the upcoming G-8 meeting this week.
In fact, the shift was so sudden that one of his appointees, NASA chief Michael Griffin, seemed to have missed the course correction. Griffin said on NPR that he was not sure that global warming was "a problem we should wrestle with." Imagine the reaction if the NASA chief had made a comment like that about an impending asteroid strike.
Of all the analogies and metaphors that have been offered to explain the threat of global warming, the one clearest to me is that global warming is like an asteroid, or perhaps a swarm of asteroids. We are already getting hit by some of the smaller ones that are showing up as hotter weather, more violent storms and mega-droughts, but there is a really big one out there headed our way.
Until now, George Bush has barely acknowledged that the asteroid exists. As of Thursday's announcement, the asteroid now exists and it is a danger, but any attempts to head it off must be voluntary and can only be deployed if they will not hurt economic growth.
It is obvious that Bush does not really believe in the asteroid. His announcement is an attempt to subvert the global effort to fight climate change. Nancy Pelosi, returning from a trip to Greenland, where she observed the rapid melting of the ice sheet, said: "The president continues to be in denial. He says now he believes that global warming is happening, and he accepts the science that it is. But if that were so, if he truly understood that, he could not have come up with a proposal that is 'aspirational.' He would have to come up with a commitment that is real."
Still, some leaders and some environmentalists feel that the president has given ground on the issue just by admitting that it exists. What we need to do now is call the president's bluff. For world leaders, that means sticking to their guns on hard targets and timelines and not allowing Bush to divert their energy to another round of meaningless talks.
From statements made this weekend by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, there is hope that European leaders will stay the course. In an interview with Der Spiegel, Merkel said "One thing is clear. We must agree on a successor to the Kyoto protocol, which expires in 2012, as part of a process led by the United Nations. ... There will certainly be other meetings and initiatives before then. ... They can even be helpful. What matters is that they all eventually merge into the UN process. This is non-negotiable."
Domestically, the Democrats need to seize this opening and pass veto-proof legislation to combat global warming as soon as possible, but it should not look like the bill that Senate Energy Committee Chair Jeff Bingaman is drafting. Bingaman's bill, which he plans to introduce in June, includes an economic "safety valve" that puts a limit on how high carbon prices can go.
The safety valve is there to make it easier for Bush to sign the bill, but according to the Environmental Defense Fund, the safety valve could "undercut the development of the very technologies that some high emitting-industries will need in the future to meet their emissions targets."
It would be a mistake to establish watered-down emissions targets during this administration. It would be far better for the Democrats to focus on a different aspect of the problem for now -- one where they can hope to make some progress. They might follow the president's lead here and emphasize technology, but with a different spin.
President Bush says that technology is the answer to global warming. His idea is to fund lots of research on coal carbon capture and storage, nuclear power and ethanol. The big corporations that dominate these industries will benefit from the additional subsidies and from Bush's plan to export these so-called "clean energy" technologies to India and China. This is the essence of Bush's climate deal.
But the real challenge of using technology to combat global warming emissions is not developing new technologies -- it is deploying the ones we already have. We already know how to drastically reduce the energy consumption of everything from buildings to appliances. The technology of heating water with the sun has been around for 100 years, but only two percent of America's hot water is heated by solar power. This is what is known as "low-hanging fruit," and America has bushels of it.
The most efficient way to achieve these efficiency gains (and emissions reductions) would be to use the markets under a carbon tax or a strong cap and trade system, but the Bush administration does not believe in free markets. Almost every policy it gets behind is aimed at boosting the fortunes of a select group of corporations in the resource extraction (oil, coal, nuclear, minerals) and weapons industries.
So for now, the Democrats will have to abandon the idea of using markets to make a rational change in our energy systems, and get behind a massive program of public investment instead.
Democrats should pass global warming legislation that repeals Bush's tax cuts for the rich and uses the funds to pay for energy efficiency audits for homes and businesses, rebates and tax incentives for improving energy efficiency, and training for efficiency technicians.
The bill should also have an expanded, long-term production tax credit for wind and solar power, as well as job training funds for a new work force to install these energy sources.
The bill should allocate funds for a major overhaul of the electricity grid and the re-creation of a national passenger rail system.
Finally, we need to invest in global warming preparedness. Many of us may not realize it yet, but we are exceedingly vulnerable to this asteroid called global warming.
Americans who live on the coasts will experience fiercer storms and rising seas. They need levees and storm barriers. Americans who live in the tinder-dry forest lands of the West and South will experience more and hotter forest fires. They need better-funded fire prevention and fire fighting programs.
Americans who live in drought-prone areas or who get their water from mountain snow packs need investment in alternative water supplies. America's public health system needs to be prepared to deal with a rise in infectious diseases as the climate warms. We really need a study of impacts to agriculture in a hotter Midwest.
If you have any doubt that global warming is in the same league with asteroids, I recommend you read, "With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change," by Fred Pearce.
We need to make this kind of public investment, and we need to make it fast.