West Wing The Incredible Shrinking Bush

There is little consensus on whether the G-8 summit can be seen as a success for the climate. What is certain is that US President George W. Bush had little part in the efforts to save the world. He didn’t lead, he only followed -- and the American superpower never before looked as small as it did this week.

By Gabor Steingart in Washington


US President George W. Bush seems to be coming around to fighting climate change by cutting emissions.
Getty Images

US President George W. Bush seems to be coming around to fighting climate change by cutting emissions.

The American president's decision to finally join the global fight against climate change should certainly be welcomed. Still, George W. Bush probably could have spared himself the long trip to the G-8 summit in Japan, where German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the other leaders had to pile on the pressure to get him to change his mind.

His time might have been better spent going for a walk around the White House -- that is, without the company of his spin doctors or any other members of the army of strategists who spend their time trying to relieve the world's most powerful man of his need to do any real thinking.

A short stroll up Pennsylvania Avenue would have been sufficient to provide ample reasons to take the helm of the global movement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and America's dependency on oil.

At the small gas station on 28th street he could have observed an attendant trying to calm angry drivers. The price of gas has doubled since last summer, causing fury among the drivers of SUVs and other gas-guzzlers -- in other words, two-thirds of all car-driving Americans.

These people have no one to pass on their extra energy costs to. Businesses, on the other hand, can escape having to shoulder the burden of rising fuel prices. Pizza delivery services, for example, have slapped on extra fuel charges, Washington taxi drivers have implemented a $1 surcharge to help cover staggering gasoline costs and grocery stores have increased prices across the board. Inflation now stands at 4 percent.

Bush would also have learned from the gas station attendant just who people are blaming for this dangerous dependency on oil. Their president, of course. The Texan has had a life-long connection, both politically and privately, with the oil business.

The next recommended stop on this jaunt along Capitol Hill would be at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where the members of Congress go about their work in their well air-conditioned chambers. The self-confident managers of the Arabian Foreign Wealth Funds were recent guests here, men whose deep pockets are overflowing with money from the gas stations. The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority alone has almost $900 billion in funds at its disposal.

With that kind of money, you could finance the Iraq War for 10 years or purchase all the US automobile companies, planemaker Boeing and one of the big investment banks on Wall Street. Word has already gotten around that the sovereign wealth funds in the Arab peninsula, Kazakhstan and Russia are not automatically friends of the Americans. Oil-rich Iran is also profiting from America's thirst for oil, which is why the recent Congressional hearings into the rising fuel prices caused such unanimity amongst the senators.

We are "enriching the enemies of the United States," said Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate. Senator Barack Obama, his Democratic opponent, has said that the US energy policy "allows dictators from hostile regimes to threaten the international community." Moving away from oil on the grounds of national security -- isn't that something that should also make sense to the president?

Bush also would have been able to visit the office of the Washington Post, a mere stone's throw from the Oval Office. This is where economics reporter Steve Pearlstein writes his astute and non-ideological columns, which recently won him the Pulitzer Prize.

Pearlstein had an idea as simple as it is unpopular about how the country could start to save energy. We should increase energy taxes, he said. That would also be the best way of reducing the oil company's profits. How does he know that?

"Well," he said, "general economic theory is one of my sources," the other is the war cry of the oil companies whenever the idea is debated. If Bush were to follow Pearlstein's advice, for the first time in his presidency Bush could make himself both unpopular and useful. Up until now, he has only succeeded at one of these traits.

On his way back to his desk, the a new ad for the Japanese company Sharp might catch his eye. At first he might expect the company's ad to talk about a photocopier, but instead it tells him that Sharp is the world's biggest producer of solar cells. The 21st century is the age of the photovoltaics, it says. "Change Your Power. Change Your Planet."

It's a slogan the president could have adopted as his own motto before taking off for the summit.

However, the president doesn't want to understand and he doesn't even want to go for a walk. That's why at the meeting of the world's eight most industrialized nations the most powerful man in the world had to have the world explained to him by seven less powerful leaders. They encouraged him to finally contemplate a future without oil, and they persuaded him that the aim of reducing CO2 emissions by 2050 was possible.

The US president didn't lead, he followed. The world's only superpower has seldom looked quite as small as it did this week.

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