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Thursday, Feb. 28, 2002
OUR PLANET EARTH
VALENTINE'S DAY FUDGE
Bush fiddles figures as the globe warms up
Last June, in the Rose Garden of the White House, President George W. Bush declared the Kyoto Protocol "fatally flawed in fundamental ways," and dubyaed it "unrealistic, arbitrary and not based on science."
He gave assurances, though, that he was serious about dealing with climate change. "Our administration will be creative," he promised. "This is an administration that will make commitments we can keep, and keep the commitments that we make."
This Valentine's Day, Bush revealed his "Global Climate Change" initiative -- and proved just how committed and creative he can be. A government fact sheet (on the U.S. State Department Web site at www.usinfo.state.gov) introduces this as a "bold new strategy for addressing global climate change." Being a sucker for boldness in environment policy, I read on.
The Global Climate Change plan, I discovered, calls for "cutting greenhouse gas intensity by 18 percent over the next 10 years." The fact sheet explains: "The president's goal seeks to lower our rate of emissions from an estimated 183 metric tons per $1 million of GDP in 2002, to 151 metric tons per $1 million of GDP in 2012."
Not bad, I thought. An 18 percent cut in greenhouse gases sounds pretty darn good for a Texas oilman. Still, despite the government's enthusiastic praise for Bush's program, something seemed amiss.
After all, the plan doesn't say the U.S. will reduce greenhouse gases that pollute and contribute to climate change. Rather, it promises to cut "greenhouse gas intensity," or "the ratio of greenhouse gas emissions to economic output."
Greenhouse gas intensity wasn't a term I'd seen, so I checked on what others were saying about the plan.
On the State Department Web site, there was a copy of a story run by The New York Times on Feb. 15, written by R. Glenn Hubbard, chairman of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers. Not surprisingly, Hubbard praises the plan, while also hinting that some fudging of the figures is going on; as he explains: "An 18 percent decline in greenhouse gas intensity over 10 years implies a 4.5 percent reduction in annual greenhouse gas emissions relative to what they would be if we moved ahead according to current forecasts."
If that sounds fiddled, it is. Since "current forecasts" predict that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise steadily, the implied relative reductions are far less substantial than the president's 18-percent figure suggests. Here is a Bush insider admitting that the promised 18-percent cut is, in fact, a 4.5 percent reduction in the growth of greenhouse gas emissions. Apparently, emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane will continue to rise under the plan -- just not as quickly.
New York Times reporter Paul Krugman, writing on the same day, said as much. "To the unwary, yesterday's pledge by the Bush administration to reduce 'greenhouse gas intensity' by 18 percent may have sounded like a pledge to reduce greenhouse gases, the emissions that cause global warming." No such pledge has been made, he writes.
Krugman defines greenhouse gas intensity as "the volume of greenhouse gas emissions divided by GDP." He then explains: "The administration says it will reduce this ratio by 18 percent over the next decade. But since most forecasts call for GDP to expand 30 percent or more over the same period, this is actually a proposal to allow a substantial increase in emissions" (italics added).
Steve Cochran and Joe Goffman of the Washington-based group Environmental Defense peel off the final layer of obfuscation. "While U.S. emissions have grown by a hefty 12 percent in the past decade," they write, "the greenhouse gas intensity of our U.S. economy -- its emissions per unit of GDP -- has actually declined by 15 percent.
"This improvement in greenhouse gas intensity has occurred under existing voluntary programs that are virtually no different from what the president outlined today. The U.S. is already doing -- and has been doing for nearly 10 years -- essentially what the president is claiming is a 'new' initiative."
Cochran and Goffman -- whose work can be found at www.environmentaldefense.org -- conclude that, "Even under the most optimistic projections from the administration proposal, total actual emissions of greenhouse gases will increase by at least 12 percent over the next decade."
That's the same rate of increase as since the early 1990s.
As promised, the Bush plan is creative: an imaginative repackaging of the status quo "as a bold new strategy." It is committed as well. A wholehearted commitment to carbon-based business-as-usual.
Last spring, I was not particularly surprised to hear Bush call the Kyoto Protocol "flawed." As a lawyer familiar with the process of drafting international environmental agreements, I know most treaties are, to some extent, flawed. In order to reach a consensus among countries with widely divergent interests, it is inevitable that simplistic, lowest common denominators will be adopted in the early stages of nurturing multinational cooperation.
Thus America is not alone. Every nation that signed the Kyoto Protocol, and must cut greenhouse gas emissions, is unhappy. Nevertheless, these same nations have committed themselves to the spirit of the protocol. As members of a robust community of nations, they have agreed to work together to clarify the science and implement the protocol to forge an effective international agreement from one that was once "flawed."
The U.S., however, has never been much of a team player in the arena of international law. Add to that its addiction to oil, and it is clear why Bush has spurned international community efforts to move beyond fossil fuels.
"This is an administration that will make commitments we can keep, and keep the commitments that we make," he promised. And he has kept his word. After all, making a commitment to do nothing at all is the easiest of all commitments to keep.
Stephen Hesse welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org