The environment has been George Bush's own personal roundabout recently, capturing him in a cycle of misdirection and frustration with each new turn. In advance of his first European trip, he tried one more time to get left on the issue by showing his administration's commitment to addressing the problem of global warming. In a Rose Garden ceremony Monday, the president acknowledged America's responsibility as a polluter and promised to study the issue and create incentives for new technologies to combat it. It was a game effort to remedy a blotchy image, but the question for the White House is whether the repair job will help rectify his environmental image back or whether it will exacerbate the problem by offering too little.
Like his visits to the Sequoia National Park and the Everglades over the last two weeks, the Rose Garden speech was more concerned with making Bush look environmentally conscious than it was in offering a brave new approach to the issue of global warming. The park visits were cooked up months ago to "to solve the arsenic problem," as one senior White House aide put it. The "arsenic problem," was the first blow to the administration's environmental image after the White House announced a review of last-minute Clinton-imposed regulations on the level of arsenic in the drinking water. The notion of a review was reasonable enough, but absent an environmental message, Bush was caricatured as pro-arsenic. After losing in the New Hampshire primary to John McCain, Bush vowed he'd never let others define him again. On this issue he has.
Monday's White House event meant to undo the damage on "Kyoto." Usually the Japanese town is used to refer to the agreement on limiting global warming gasses that was negotiated there, but in the White House it has come to mean the second round of environmental problems. Round two started when Bush reversed his position on limiting CO2 emissions which many scientists believe contribute to global warming. When he simply reiterated his opposition to the Kyoto protocol that locked in the notion that he didn't care about the issue at all. "Kyoto" has also come to symbolize the White House's belief that on the environment their problem is not so much a matter of substance as presentation. In a luncheon with reporters Monday, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card said, "On climate change the policy was sensible and right. How it was marketed, or the lack of marketing meant perceptions weren't reality."
So will a few events in hip waders or standing in front of sequoias help people start seeing the White House view of the president, which is that he is a committed environmentalist? Not likely. We saw how the Bush team could mobilize when they were committed to changing the education system, solving our long-term energy problems or cutting taxes. Environmental issues even now under heavy damage control don't get the same kind of full-throttle treatment. At one point when the White House Climate Change Working Group had supposedly already been meeting for weeks, one key administration official didn't even know such a group existed.
Mondays speech didn't change many minds either, especially not in Europe. Bush essentially re-packaged his previous position on climate change: he's against the Kyoto protocol and developing nations must be called to account for their share of the global problem. Bush did go further in recognizing the problem. That doesn't do much for the Europeans or others concerned about how the United States will address the issue.
That's fine with the White House. While image repair is a top priority there is no inclination to do anything rash that would hurt the economy. European whining, protest in the streets, and complaints from bureaucrats have only so much effect on the powerful voices in the White House. The real view is that Europeans are being unrealistic and trying to blame the United States for backing out of the Kyoto agreement when they had their own problems with it. Solving global climate change, says the White House, cannot be done in a day. Issues must be weighed and studied. True, but that means until the White House offers real policy prescriptions, Bush will probably have to take a few more laps in the circle.