Bush's Toothless Climate Plan

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Manuel Balce / AP

President Bush delivers remarks on the climate, Wednesday, April 16, 2008, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington.

President George W. Bush stood in the White House's Rose Garden this afternoon, and delivered his strategy for saving the world from climate change. Central was a new goal of stopping the growth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, through a mix of incentives for lower-carbon power and better energy efficiency, especially for utilities. It wouldn't be a bad plan — if it were the year 2000 and this was candidate George W. Bush speaking on the presidential campaign trail. As it stands, Bush's new climate change policy — though no new specific initiatives were announced, aside from the 2025 goal — is too little, too slow, too late.

Actually, the candidate George W. Bush was tougher on global warming than the 2008 version. Back then, Bush said he was in favor of limiting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. But he backtracked from that position quickly after his election, and since then has steadfastly opposed any kind of mandatory cap on U.S. carbon emissions. That didn't change during his Rose Garden speech today, and that is why, while it's heartening to see Bush actually name a goal for carbon emissions, his new proposal is virtually meaningless. Without hard carbon caps, climate change will not be defeated — and more than seven years into his Administration, that's a fact Bush has yet to learn.

It's not that Bush doesn't have some good ideas. In the past and during his speech, Bush has emphasized the importance of developing new, carbon-free alternative energy sources as the only way to ultimately eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. "We must all recognize that in the long run, new technologies are the key to addressing climate change," he said. Absolutely — and Bush's ideas of reforming incentives that speed the commercialization of new technologies is smart, though difficult to fully judge without greater details. But bringing carbon-free alternatives to market isn't easy — which is why renewables still make up a tiny percentage of our energy supply, despite all the attention paid to climate change. That's why carbon caps — which gradually limit the level of carbon dioxide emissions that can be emitted by the economy — are so important. By raising the cost of fossil fuels, carbon caps drive investment toward energy efficiency and alternative power — and anything that allows businesses and consumers to escape the cost of carbon. Suddenly being green goes from a virtue to an economic necessity.

Bush has it wrong when he separates carbon caps and technological development — the two must go hand in hand. A number of cap-and-trade programs are circulating in Congress — most notably the legislation co-sponsored by Senators Joseph Lieberman and John Warner, which would cap U.S. carbon emissions at 2005 levels by 2012 (effectively ending emissions growth well before Bush's new goal of 2025), and then reduce them to 70% below 2005 levels by 2050. Though Bush didn't mention Lieberman-Warner by name, comments by advisers before the speech indicated that the Administration would continue to oppose mandatory cap-and-trade legislation. "Bad legislation would impose tremendous costs on our economy and American families without accomplishing the important climate change goals we share," said Bush.

Yes, carbon caps will impact the economy in the short run, by raising energy prices on businesses and consumers alike. But many models suggest it wouldn't be the economic apocalypse Bush foresees. The President's own Environmental Protection Administration, in an analysis released last month, estimated that the U.S. economy's GDP would grow just 1% less between 2010 and 2030 under Lieberman-Warner than without the bill. Other studies suggest that over the long-term firm carbon caps could benefit the American economy, by creating new clean tech companies and new green jobs to replace polluting industries — which are already slowly being outsourced to the developing world.

With less than a year to go and carrying low approval ratings, it may not matter what Bush promises to do on an issue that has never seemed close to his heart. Fortunately, all three presidential candidates favor mandatory caps, as do growing segments of the business world and governments on the state level. (Though Senator John McCain, who just announced a proposal to lift the U.S. gasoline tax during the summer, is in danger of losing his green credentials.) Real climate change action is on its way, and it's unlikely to be shaped by Bush. It's a shame though. Over his Administration — which has been disastrous for the environment — Bush has slowly evolved on climate change, from denier, to doubter, to where he is today, a believer in the reality of global warming, but one who just isn't ready to take strong action. Maybe if he had a little more time — perhaps 20 or 30 years — he'd finally become convinced that this is one of the top threats facing America, and needs a similarly vigorous response. But by then, it'd be too late for the rest of us.