Educating W: Global Warming Report Creates a Presidential Headache

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RON EDMONDS/AP

President Bush meets with congressional lawmakers

TIME.com: The Bush administration asked the National Academy of Sciences to investigate global warming, and the Academy's panel reported that — contra President Bush's campaign claim that the science of global warming was inconclusive — the planet is indeed getting warmer as a result of human activities. The President travels to Europe next week, where he'll have to defend his administration's stance on global warming and the Kyoto treaty. Where does the Academy's study leave him?

Dick Thompson: It means the administration may have to look for a new fig leaf. Conservative economists — rather than scientists — have been saying for a long time that there's a lot of uncertainty about the science of global warming. But what this report is saying is that despite uncertainties on a variety of questions, there's enough certainties to draw certain basic conclusions, one of them being that the planet's temperatures are rising as a result of human activity.

Now, if you read that against the administration's energy plan, which advocates substantially increasing outputs of carbon gases, and it's clear that the administration right now plans to exacerbate rather than reduce the problem of global warming. Then, send President Bush to Europe, which is furious with Washington for withdrawing from the Kyoto treaty, and it's clear that the scientists' report has put him in a very difficult situation.

Were the Bush team surprised by the study, or did they expect its results?

They were clearly shocked. You could see that much in the questions they asked the scientists to answer. These came from a group of people who'd been out of power for a long time, and suspected that while they were out of power a left-wing conspiracy had sought to take control of energy policy by whipping up a panic based on false science — they clearly believed that asking these questions to their own scientists would disprove the claims of those calling for action on global warming, and so they went to the National Academy of Sciences with questions framed to give them the answers that they wanted to hear. And instead, the scientists came back and made clear that the science behind global warming is solid, and that the administration had better pay attention.

Having rejected Kyoto out of hand, it presumably behooves the Bush administration now to offer the Europeans some alternative proposals. What alternatives does the Bush team have to offer, and is it possible to address the problem of global warming without hurting the economy?

I don't think the administration has any substantial alternative yet. There has been a high-level cabinet group meeting for some time looking for an alternative to Kyoto, and I don't think they've settled on anything yet.

Can they come up with a plan that doesn't hurt the economy and protects the environment? It's possible, but given their position on energy, I'm not sure that this administration has a framework to do that.

When President Clinton talked about growing the economy and protecting the environment at the same time, he was talking about using the buying power of the federal government to spur innovation in conservation, and subsidizing such alternatives till they were on a par with coal in terms of price. But I don't see this administration doing that. They laid their cards on the table with their energy plan. They're not about to say, "Sorry, we didn't mean that." Vice President Cheney seems very antagonistic to conservation, saying we can't conserve way out of the crisis. He doesn't seem very open to alternative strategies.

How will the energy industry respond to the latest findings?

It's important to realize that the industry is not monolithic. Enron, for example, which has close ties to the Bush administration, is heavily invested in natural gas, and they're member of the Pew Foundation, which means they sign onto the science of global warming and the search for ways of meeting the Kyoto targets. BP has a heavy investment in energy alternatives. There's a lot of support in industry for doing something reasonable to address climate change. Industry is not that reluctant to sign on as long as the playing field is level. It's difficult for Ford to go all the way if that means giving an advantage to its competitors. So the government could level the playing field by creating uniform standards.

But regulation is anathema to this administrationů

That's right. This administration is the grandchild of Reagan's principle that government isn't the solution, it's the problem. Still, President Bush is in a bind, because he can no longer say the science is inconclusive. He can say that drastic actions to curb global warming could hurt the economy. It's certainly going to take a deft hand to steer the economy through the issue of climate change.

So Bush is going to tell the Europeans that Washington rejects Kyoto but doesn't yet have a clear alternative, and that they'll simply have to wait until it does?

Yes, and I don't think Europe is going to be very satisfied with that answer.