Global Warming Challenge for Bush

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A president rooted in the oil industry who questions the science of global warming. An EPA secretary-designate who appears ignorant of the difference between global warming and the ozone hole. A ruling party inherently skeptical of binding U.S. adherence to international treaties... The odds are certainly stacked against the new administration in Washington's responding to increasingly shrill warnings of the consequences of a warming planet. The latest alarm came Monday from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a grouping of some of the world's most eminent climate scientists, working under the auspices of the United Nations.

The IPCC reported that the consensus among scientists is that the earth is warming more rapidly than had previously been thought, and that process is being accelerated by human behaviors such as burning fossil fuels. The consequences, it warns, include an average temperature increase of as much as 10 degrees over the next century, which will wreak havoc with agriculture and raise ocean levels by tens of inches, a situation that would devastate coastal cities around the world. Like any scientific consensus, however, it still has plenty of high-brow naysayers, and doubters in the oil industry or the White House will still easily find scientists at the margins of that consensus willing to challenge the IPCC findings. Still, the tide appears to have turned against them.

The political context of the scientific debate is, of course, the stalled Kyoto Treaty, which aims to address the problem by obliging industrialized nations to cut their carbon-gas outputs to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. (U.S. output levels have risen almost one third since 1990, and are continuing to rise.) The Clinton administration had sought to soften the impact by demanding that it be given pollution "credits" for much of its output on the grounds that America's forests supposedly soak up large amounts of carbon gases, and when European governments balked, treaty talks collapsed. After all, the U.S. is by far the world's largest polluter, accounting for some 25 percent of the entire planet's carbon gas output, and a treaty without Washington would be relatively meaningless.

Although treaty talks continue — the next round is scheduled for Germany in May — the advent of the Bush administration has diminished the already tattered prospects of a deal. Still, the new administration hasn't entirely dismissed the issue: Secretary of State Colin Powell urged at the weekend that the May talks be postponed to allow the new administration to make a positive contribution. And a growing number of Republican legislators have begun to concede the facts of global warming, and support measures that would result in reduced consumption of fossil fuels. In addition, regardless of the levels of "green" thinking in the GOP, some of the leading players in the oil and auto industry have begun to invest heavily in programs to develop energy alternatives. Meanwhile, however, European governments are pressing ahead with long-term plans to make even more dramatic cuts in carbon gas output than those required by Kyoto. Whether or not the Kyoto agreement survives, the issue itself is not going to go away — which may make boning up on climate science one of the key challenges facing the Bush administration.