A Climate Of Despair

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The ambassadors from the 15-nation European Union got more than they bargained for when they invited National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to lunch two weeks ago. The gathering, a regular ritual in Washington, was held at the Swedish ambassador's residence, and as often happens, a representative of the White House was invited. This time Rice agreed to attend--good news for the Europeans, who had something they wanted to discuss.

With the U.S. still skeptical about the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to cut carbon dioxide emissions and curb global warming and the 83 other signatory nations still wrestling over the details, the E.U. was growing concerned that the pact might fall apart. In February, Environmental Protection Agency Director Christine Todd Whitman reassured E.U. leaders that global warming remained high on the new Administration's worry list. But in March, President George W. Bush announced he was abandoning his campaign pledge to curb CO2 emissions from power plants, having concluded that the gas shouldn't be regulated as a pollutant, particularly during a burgeoning energy crisis. If the President also backed away from Kyoto, as he threatened to do during the campaign, the accord could die.

"We wanted to pass on the message that we take this issue seriously," one of the officials told Rice over lunch.

The NSA chief responded directly. "Kyoto," she said, "is not acceptable to the Administration or Congress."

Did the White House agree that global warming was a looming crisis, the ambassadors wanted to know. Yes, Rice answered. But, she explained, "we will have to find new ways to deal with the problem. Kyoto is dead."

The reaction to Rice's private message at the ambassador's house was subdued, but when Whitman publicly confirmed that position last week, the global reaction was swift and furious. Governments condemned the President's stance as uninformed and even reckless, noting with outrage that the U.S. is home to 4% of the world's population but produces 25% of its greenhouse gases. French President Jacques Chirac called on all countries to implement Kyoto--never mind Washington. China's Foreign Ministry called U.S. actions "irresponsible."

Even the E.U., which is just starting to feel out its relationship with the President, hit Bush hard, firing off a letter to the White House warning that new talks were "urgently needed." E.U. Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom went further, rattling the sword of global sanctions. "I don't think this is the time to threaten," she said, "but we must be clear about the political implications."

Bush got another earful from German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder at the White House last Thursday. But the President stood firm. "Our economy has slowed down," he said. "We also have an energy crisis, and the idea of placing caps on CO2 does not make economic sense."

Schroder and other critics who seem shocked by the President's moves either are easily surprised or simply weren't listening. Bush's decision on CO2 caps was indeed a reversal of campaign promises, but he was always a foe of Kyoto. What's more, since the stock market started to stumble and California and possibly other states began facing power shortages, the Administration has been reluctant to do anything that would raise the price of fossil fuels and discourage their use. "I was straightforward with the European ambassadors in the way that the President has been straightforward on the Kyoto Protocol," Rice told TIME. "The notion that everybody was taken aback or surprised took us as a little odd."

If Bush gauged the heat he'd take from the rest of the world wrong, he read the American people more or less right. A new TIME/CNN poll showed that 75% of those surveyed consider global warming a "very serious" or "fairly serious" problem, and 67% said the President should develop a program to address it. But only 48% said they would be willing to pay 25[cents] more for a gallon of gasoline. And while they are concerned about climate change, they are more fearful of seeing their electric bills soar or of losing their jobs.

Members of both major parties realize that global warming is a long-term problem that carries little short-term political risk. By the time their inaction causes big trouble--maybe decades from now--they'll be long gone. But if they foul up the economy, they'll be sent home next Election Day.

When it comes to the environment in general, the President must answer charges that his campaign sales pitch was little more than bait and switch. Almost immediately upon taking office, the soothing candidate who made it a point to sound so many green themes on the stump began to govern much more like the oil-patch President conservatives hoped he would be. The Administration announced it was suspending rules to reduce arsenic in drinking water, reconsidering Bill Clinton's decision to protect 58 million acres of federal land from logging, and pursuing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (though Bush downplayed that last week in the face of opposition).

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