Dubya's Next Showdown

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At the close of the Kyoto Global-Warming Treaty discussions held in Bonn last week, exhausted negotiators from nearly every country on earth had reason to be proud. They had done what no one expected--they reached a breakthrough agreement to limit greenhouse gases. During the concluding remarks, as each speaker praised the next, only the chief U.S. official on the scene drew an undiplomatic response. When Paula Dobriansky told the gathering that the Bush Administration "will not abdicate our responsibility" to address global warming, the hall filled with boos. That's because the U.S., the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases, sat on the sidelines in Bonn.

George W. Bush has yet to decide what, if anything, he will do to combat global warming. But he believes the Kyoto treaty is fatally flawed because it doesn't require developing countries to limit their fossil-fuel use immediately, as it does industrialized countries. So he kept the U.S. out of the discussions. In doing so, the Administration may have lost its last opportunity to help shape the international response to the problem. And Bush may be in danger of losing control over climate action domestically. After months of internal debate, the Administration is still "consulting" on the issue.

That noise you hear is Congress rushing to fill the leadership vacuum. At least six climate plans have been proposed so far. The first is sponsored by former Republican, now Independent Senator Jim Jeffords, chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, who proposes to cut greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants.

Congressional action this week will center on reducing emissions by raising vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, including those for SUVs. If SUVs had to meet the same standards as cars--something Massachusetts Representative Ed Markey will propose this week--they could save consumers an estimated $7 billion at the pump this year and cut gasoline demand by tens of billions of gallons over 10 years.

The "drill Detroit, not the Arctic" campaign will find some support this week when the National Academy of Sciences releases a long-awaited study. The report, toned down after the auto industry protested that raising fuel-efficiency standards, by making cars lighter, makes vehicles less safe, is still likely to conclude that fuel efficiency can be increased at least 25% with existing technology.

If a fuel-efficiency bill reaches his desk, Bush could be in a bind--caught between auto lobbyists (his chief of staff used to be one) and his concern for energy security. With new technology putting impressive fuel efficiency within reach, it will be hard for him to oppose measures that could reduce the national appetite for foreign oil by millions of barrels a year.