The US and Climate Change Behind Bush's About-Face on Emissions

The Environmental Protection Agency is under pressure to address global warming. But the resulting legislation probably won't satisfy environmentalists.

By John Carey

US President George W. Bush delivered a speech on emissions policy in the Rose Garden of the White House on Wednesday.

US President George W. Bush delivered a speech on emissions policy in the Rose Garden of the White House on Wednesday.

There has a been pattern with George W. Bush and climate change. He promises action -- but the details end up being major disappointments to those who believe action is needed. In his campaign, Bush came out in support of mandatory curbs on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, only to backtrack quickly after becoming President.

In 2002, he offered a "plan" to fight global warming, but it was a minor increase in support for technology and the setting of targets that were only voluntary. In May, 2007, he issued an executive order calling for regulatory steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles by 2008, but his agencies never followed up with actual proposals for accomplishing those reductions. At an international meeting on climate change in Bali in December, the frustration of the rest of the world bubbled over. A representative from Papua New Guinea shouted at the US delegation: "If you are not willing to lead, then get out of the way!"

Light on Substance

Now, the pattern is repeating. The White House had promised that President Bush would deliver a major speech on April 16 on global warming in the Rose Garden. Just as with previous announcements, the move was scheduled right before a major international meeting on climate change, this time in Paris. Senior officials even leaked details to The Wall Street Journal a day before, prompting a front-page story on Wednesday headlined "Bush to Call for Greenhouse-Gas Curbs."

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But did the White House call for mandatory curbs of the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases? Actually no. The speech set only principles and goals, not mandates. The "new" national goal, Bush said, was "to stop the growth of US greenhouse gas emissions by 2025." In other words, emissions would be allowed to increase for the next 18 years before anything substantive was done. Note the contrast to legislation now being considered in Congress, which tries to do what scientists say is needed to prevent damaging amount of global warming. A bill introduced by Senators Joe Lieberman and John Warner, for instance, calls for mandatory curbs. It sets a target of cutting emissions by 19 percent by 2020 compared with levels in 2005.

The closest Bush came to discussing mandatory reductions was when he talked about utilities. "We will reduce emissions levels in the power sector well below where they were projected to be when we first announced our climate strategy in 2002," he said. "There are a number of ways to achieve these reductions, but all responsible approaches depend on accelerating the development and deployment of new technologies." In other words, the goal is to keep power plant emissions from climbing as fast as once projected, but it won't happen unless new technologies are put in place. What Bush carefully doesn't specify is the policies he will use to get those technologies deployed. Most economists say that it won't happen without mandates, which Bush rejects.

Critics are Dismissive

Not surprisingly, the response from advocates of action on climate change ranged from disappointed to scathing. "These principles are laughable," says Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. "The President is about eight years behind the curve." Adds Representative Ed Markey: "The real headline should be: 'Bush pledges to do nothing before Jan. 20, 2009.' It is a strategy of delay and distract."

Senator Tom Carper is a little more judicious. He points out that the President now acknowledges global warming is a problem, even if his plan is too little, too late. "The outline Bush announced today, though a significant sea change for the President, still falls short of providing the leadership needed if we're serious about climate change," he says.


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