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Thursday, June 28, 2001

OUR PLANET EARTH

George W. stepping on toes to dance with special interests


U.S. President George W. Bush is not the beau of the ball among scientists these days. "On both missile defense and the greenhouse effect," Dr. Hugh Gusterson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tells the New York Times, there is "substantial [scientific] consensus against the White House."

James Glanz, who quotes Gusterson, relates a mid-June exchange between Bush and a journalist in Madrid. "You say the scientific evidence isn't strong enough to go forward with [the Kyoto Protocol]," said the journalist. "So then how do you justify your missile defense plan when there is even less scientific evidence that that will work?" Bush did not offer a direct answer.

On June 11, just before visiting Madrid and Europe, Bush declared the Kyoto Protocol "fatally flawed" and called for a new approach to deal with climate change and global warming caused by human activities. To reassure those who might doubt his sincerity, Bush said he understands climate change "is very important to the nations of Europe," adding, "the Earth's well-being is also an issue important to America." If nothing else, he proved himself a master of understatement.

Scientists are not the only ones nonplussed by the Bush administration. Underscoring just how insensitive this administration is to the sensibilities of other nations, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. told the Los Angeles Times, "The emperor of Kyoto was running around for a long time, and he was naked. It took President Bush to point out that he didn't have any clothes on."

Card may be oblivious to diplomacy, but he has a great fondness for fossil fuels. In the early 1990s, he was secretary of transportation under former President Bush, and later became executive director of a powerful lobbying organization, the American Automobile Manufacturers Association.

The scientific findings Bush flouted when he flayed the Kyoto Protocol were not just those of a majority of the world's scientists. Only days earlier, a committee of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, convened at Bush's request, reported that "observed warming of the Earth's atmosphere over the last 50 years is at least in part being caused by greenhouse-gas emissions such as carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels."

In his June 11 speech, Bush acknowledged the academy's findings. "We know the surface temperature of the Earth is warming," he said. "Concentrations of greenhouse gases, especially CO2, have increased substantially since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The National Academy of Sciences indicates that the increase is due in large part to human activity."

Bush also noted various uncertainties. "The Academy's report tells us that we do not know how much effect natural fluctuations in climate may have had on warming," he explained. "We do not know how much our climate could or will change in the future. We do not know how fast change will occur, or even how some of our actions could impact it . . . and, finally, no one can say with any certainty what constitutes a dangerous level of warming, and therefore what level must be avoided."

This said, one might expect reason and the precautionary principle to dictate reducing speed in the fog of uncertainty. Bush, however, casts caution and science to the wind, and argues that compliance will be difficult and the economy may suffer. He makes no mention of the threat climate change poses to health and infrastructure, nor of the billions of dollars annually it could cost the agricultural and insurance sectors.

"Many countries cannot meet their Kyoto targets," Bush said. "For America, complying with those mandates would have a negative economic impact, with layoffs of workers and price increases for consumers. When you evaluate all these flaws, most reasonable people will understand that it's not sound public policy."

Reasonable people, I suspect, disagree with Bush. A 1999 U.S. Department of Energy survey found that 58 percent of Americans surveyed believed protecting the environment was more important than producing energy (38 percent). Asked whether "we must protect the environment, even if it means paying higher prices," 55 percent agreed while 38 percent disagreed.

Of course, complying with Kyoto would not profit U.S. coal and oil interests. Nor would it be easy or painless for American citizens. Energy use has soared in the U.S. over the past "golden" decade. Fleets of SUVs and hillsides of five-bedroom houses with pools and three-car garages have raised U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 13 percent in 10 years, according to the Financial Times. Thus, for the U.S. to comply with its Kyoto commitment of reducing GHGs to 7 percent below 1990 levels, it would need to cut national emissions by some 20 percent.

For any president this would be a tall order. For one baptized in Texas crude, it would be political suicide. To the rest of the world, though, failing to act is absurd.

Even a senior Bush administration official concedes, "The common European perception of Bush is of a shallow, arrogant, gun-loving, abortion-hating, Christian fundamentalist Texas buffoon." In at least one respect, however, this characterization is wrong. Bush's refusal to accept and build on the consensus achieved in Kyoto has ensured that Europe's perception has become Asia's, too.

White House spokesman Ari Fleisher recently said President Bush "believes the American people are very wise and, given the right incentives, will make their own right determinations about how much they can conserve." Endearing, but wrong. Few of us make the wisest choices for ourselves, and even fewer consider the best interests of the nation when making energy-use decisions -- including bureaucrats and corporate executives.

Disagree? Talk to James Buchanan, who won a Nobel Prize for proving that, in the words of writer Rich Thomas, "government bureaucrats, [and] even employees in big private companies, tend to care more about their own comforts, benefits and salaries than they care about the taxpayers or customers they are supposed to serve." But take heart, Washington, this buffoonery is alive and well worldwide.

Stephen Hesse welcomes questions and comments at stevehesse@hotmail.com


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