Why Bush Flip-Flop Helps Clarify Global Warming Challenge

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American smokestacks: Not helping the global-warming situation

President Bush may be reneging on his campaign promises on air pollution, but in doing so he may also be presenting the American people with a more honest depiction of its environmental dilemma. Following intensive lobbying by the energy industry and a policy review by Vice President Cheney, the White House on Tuesday backed away from a Bush campaign pledge to regulate power plants' output of carbon dioxide — the gas whose massive buildup inside the Earth's atmosphere is believed by most scientists to create the "greenhouse effect" that causes global warming.

President Bush qualified the shift from his campaign promise with the almost charmingly guileless explanation that he'd failed to take notice of the fact that carbon dioxide is not listed as a pollutant in the 1970 Clean Air Act. This by-the-book rationalization is, of course, entirely at odds with the growing consensus among scientists that carbon gases are causing global warming, and puts the U.S. on a collision course with most of the international community, which has been pressing, through the Kyoto Accord on Climate Change, to curb carbon-gas outputs. The U.S. is by far the world's largest contributor to this problem, producing somewhere between 25 and 30 percent of the planet's carbon gases despite constituting less than 5 percent of its population.

But President Bush remains skeptical of the science of global warming, being more inclined toward the thinking of the energy industry — his home base in the private sector — and the small minority of scientists that support its challenge to the emerging conventional wisdom on "greenhouse gases." And, of course, Bush is inclined to believe that what is good for business is good for government. In his letter to Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) explaining his decision to drop plans to regulate output, the President said he'd been motivated by the impact the move would have on U.S. energy consumption and prices.

No pretense of compliance

The White House decision naturally has environmental groups up in arms, and suggests that it's now unlikely that the U.S. will pursue with any seriousness international negotiations over a treaty to curb global warming. For many European governments who've had to deal with the Clinton administration's evasion and avoidance on the issues despite proclaiming itself environmentalist, the more blunt recalcitrance of the Bush administration may even prove easier to engage with. President Clinton may have signed the Kyoto treaty, but he never had any intention of presenting it to Congress, and sent his negotiators to Europe to try and pull the teeth of the agreement — to the point of arguing that the preponderance of forests in the U.S. meant that it shouldn't have to make any cuts in its output. By contrast, the Bush administration isn't even pretending that it's on the same page as the international community on the issue, making clear that the U.S. is not going to provide leadership in global efforts to curb global warming.

Back home, too, the President may be offering Americans a more realistic appraisal of the choices before them: The environment can only be protected and cleaned up at a cost, which will have to be borne by U.S. corporations and consumers. That's a reality the Clinton administration tended to obscure, instead promoting the somewhat wishful thinking that the planet could be saved in ways that were all good for corporate America and would interfere very little with U.S. consumption habits. That simply didn't square with the numbers — compliance with Kyoto, for example, would have required that current U.S. carbon gas outputs, which still increase each year, be cut by almost one third over the next decade.

President Bush is no environmentalist, and he's putting the stark choices on the table: If the U.S. wants to maintain its current lifestyle and consumption habits, saving the planet may have to wait. Cleaning up the environment will come at a cost to corporate profits and to consumers, and despite what he said on the campaign trail — indeed, despite what administration officials such as EPA chief Christie Whitman were saying as recently as 10 days ago — President Bush has now made clear that he believes the gain isn't worth the cost. Back to you, America.