Bush: Global warming is just hot air

The planet's getting hotter, ecosystems are going haywire, government scientists know it -- and still the president denies there's a problem. Guess which industry continues to fuel his campaign?

Published September 10, 2004 9:36PM (EDT)

Don't expect President Bush to discuss global warming -- the world's most serious environmental problem -- on the campaign trail in the next eight weeks. The former oilman from Texas doesn't dare alienate his friends in the fossil fuel and auto industries, prime purveyors of global warming. Bush still refuses to admit that burning Chevron with Techron in our Jeep Grand Cherokees, not to mention megatons of coal in our power plants, has brought us 19 of the 20 hottest years on record since 1980.

"You're talking about a president who says that the jury is out on evolution, so what possible evidence would you need to muster to prove the existence of global warming?" says Robert F. Kennedy Jr., author of the new book "Crimes Against Nature." "We've got polar ice caps melting, glaciers disappearing all over the world, ocean levels rising, coral reefs dying. But these people are flat-earthers."

In fact, Bush's see-no-evil, hear-no-evil stance on global warming is so intractable that even when his own administration's scientists weigh in on the issue, he simply won't hear of it.

In a report sent to Congress at the end of August, government scientists argued that the warming of the atmosphere in recent decades cannot be explained by natural causes but must include such human sources as energy consumption and deforestation. It's a conclusion that a consensus of the world's climatologists reached years ago but that Bush has ignored throughout his presidency.

When the New York Times quizzed Bush about why his scientists had shifted their positions on what caused global warming, he appeared entirely ignorant that they had. "I don't think we did," he said. When tipped off to the paper's coverage of the report, he added: "Oh, OK, well, that's got to be true." Maybe he really doesn't read the newspapers. His aides then assured reporters that, no, this report wouldn't signal any change in his policies around climate change.

In other words, Bush will continue to delay regulatory action related to global warming, while pledging to invest in more study of the issue in the name of "sound science," before doing anything about it.

"The Bush administration has been playing whack-a-mole trying to beat back its own scientists on global warming; every once in a while they miss one," says Jeremy Symons, who worked at the Environmental Protection Agency in 2001, when the president reneged on his campaign promise to regulate global-warming pollution -- a move, Symons says, done for "no reason other than to appease polluters."

"The strength of the science is overwhelming and it's reflected in this new report," adds Symons, now climate change program manager for the National Wildlife Federation. "It doesn't leave the administration anywhere to hide about the fact that it's not doing anything. The science hasn't changed, but when it comes to policy the Bush administration still has its head in the sand."

It's a repeat of a situation early in Bush's presidency, when he asked the National Academy of Sciences to look into global warming and they found that it is happening and is likely caused by such human activities as burning fossil fuels. The response? The administration just continued to call for further study and even infamously censored mentions of the harmful impact of global warming from a federal environmental report.

"Since the first time President Bush has marginally said global warming could be real, he has delayed, denied or tried to derail any advancements to address it," says Betsy Loyless, vice president for policy for the League of Conservation Voters, which has endorsed John Kerry for president in 2004.

The Bush administration has refused to allow climate experts to even participate in climate policy discussions, asserts Rosina Bierbaum, a former director of the White House science office. Rather than consult with its own scientific advisors when devising a strategy on climate change, the White House constructed a plan primarily from conversations with the National Economic Counsel.

"I wasn't asked anything," says Bierbaum, now dean of the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment. "In fact, I was told to stop sending weekly science updates to the White House, as had been the tradition with the previous administration."

Now that Bush is seeking reelection, he's certainly not going to bring up global warming, which he's done so little about. "Bush is not mentioning it because it goes against the major interest of his supporters," says Ross Gelbspan, author of a new book on global warming called "Boiling Point," which calls for buying out coal miners to speed the transition from CO2-intensive coal to electricity made from renewable sources. "Bush has given the reins of our climate and energy policies to the coal and oil industries completely."

Oil and gas companies have contributed more than $2 million to Bush's reelection effort, making him the largest recipient of the industry's campaign dollars, according to the Center for Responsive Politics; and the coal industry has given his reelection effort more than $200,000, making the president that industry's biggest beneficiary too.

When you dig into Bush's reelection campaign, you find that he euphemistically refers to global warming as "climate change," and that his 2005 budget includes nearly $2 billion for scientific research "focused on reducing significant uncertainties in climate science."

"His response to everything is we still need more study," adds Kennedy. "You're never going to get a scientist to say there is an absolute certainty that this consequence is going to happen. You're standing on a railroad track and a train is coming. A scientist is not going to say that there is a complete 100 percent certainty that that train is going to hit you, but it's still a good idea to get off the track."

When Bush does address climate change, he brags about his programs "Healthy Forests" and "Clear Skies," chipper names that mask what they actually do. The programs allow companies to voluntarily reduce greenhouse gas intensity, not overall greenhouse gas emissions.

That means that as the economy grows, the ratio of greenhouse gas emissions to economic output should not grow as quickly. Yet that phenomenon is already happening on its own; as the economy becomes more service-oriented, it's naturally becoming less CO2-intensive. According to the Government Accountability Office, emission intensity was already projected to drop 14 percent between 2002 and 2012.

"The core of the Bush policy was a voluntary goal of reducing emissions 'intensity' by 18 percent by 2012," says Aimee Christensen, executive director of Environment 2004, a political action group. So what the policy really calls for -- but does not require -- is a mere 4 percent reduction in intensity. What's lost in the discussion about "emissions intensity," says Christensen, is that actual greenhouse gas emissions will increase 12 percent.

Compare that to the targets set by the Kyoto Protocol, which would have mandated that by 2012 the U.S. return to emission levels 7 percent below those of 1990, or the McCain/Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act, which asked that the U.S. return to year 2000 levels of emissions. Both those plans would result in actual reductions, not just intensity reductions. The Bush administration walked away from the first proposal on the international stage and opposed the second here at home.

"Clearly, if the White House took a different position, the McCain-Lieberman plan would have had a good shot," says Symons. "If President Bush put half as much energy into doing something about global warming as he does to opposing the efforts in Congress, we may actually have gotten something done."

While the U.S. rests on its voluntary plan for just slightly reducing the growth rate of its global warming emissions, it continues to account for more than 20 percent of the man-made greenhouse gases produced in the world. "It didn't take 9/11 and the war on Iraq to begin to make the United States the pariah in international circles," says Randy Hayes, founder of the Rainforest Action Network and director of sustainability for Oakland, Calif. "Bush's fight against the Kyoto Protocol, and the U.S. opposing setting firm targets and timelines for the reduction of greenhouse gases, did that."

Further evidence that the voluntary Bush program is not doing much of anything can be found in how few companies participate in its much ballyhooed Climate Leaders program. Fifty-six companies got involved, with fewer than half of those agreeing to set targets to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. "The bottom line is, in the absence of a mandatory program you're not going to have the kind of participation you need," says Vicki Arroyo, director of policy analysis for the PEW Center on Global Climate Change.

After all, why should companies participate if they don't have to? "With this voluntary framework, it just creates so little incentive for people to do anything, even if you have a good program in place to help them do the right thing," says Christensen.

And then there's Bush's Climate VISION program, which allows industry sectors to set their own voluntary emissions intensity reduction targets. Not surprisingly, the industry associations set very modest goals for themselves. For instance, the electric power industry pledged to reduce carbon intensity by 3 to 5 percent within the decade, while complaining that this would be "very difficult" to accomplish.

With his ideological opposition to forcing industry to do anything, Bush has focused on funding research initiatives into new technologies that could help CO2-intensive industries emit less carbon in the future -- the far future. For instance, he's trumpeting his investment in a demonstration power plant, which would capture and sequester the CO2 emissions under the ground. But concerns about catastrophic CO2 leaks and possible aquifer contamination have left some unconvinced. "Certainly, the verdict is not in on coal sequestration, and until it is, we're highly skeptical of that," says Dave Hamilton, director of global warming and energy programs for the Sierra Club. Gelbspan is more direct. "Carbon sequestration is a huge misuse of money that could be put into renewable energy," he says. "This would be a boondoggle for Halliburton and Bechtel. If you simply use that money to put up wind farms, you'd be doing the right thing."

Some environmental groups favor government investment in research to try to make carbon sequestration work -- but not without corresponding mandatory limits on C02 emissions. "We're not going to support them in a separate fashion because that's a way to get swindled," says David G. Hawkins, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center. So even if carbon sequestration does show promise, subsidizing its research and development without also forcing the coal industry to emit less C02 amounts to a giveaway to a polluting industry.

Bush has adopted the same new-technology-is-our-savior approach with the auto industry, funding research into hydrogen fuel-cell cars, while only marginally raising the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards that regulate how many miles per gallon cars on the road must get. He's hyped the promise of hydrogen fuel-cell cars, which would emit nothing but water from the tailpipe.

But despite his campaign's claim that such cars would "emit no air pollutants or greenhouse gases," using hydrogen could actually end up creating a lot of CO2 emissions, according to Joseph Romm, the author of "The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate," who was in charge of clean energy in the Department of Energy in the Clinton administration. That's because the hydrogen has to be derived from somewhere and today 95 percent of hydrogen in the U.S. comes from natural gas -- a fossil fuel. And since hydrogen is such a diffuse gas it would take a lot of energy to compress or deliver it. Even those who continue to be more optimistic about getting hydrogen from renewable sources in the future don't see them on the road in large numbers for decades.

While Bush bets on new technologies saving us from global warming, the atmosphere continues to heat up. "Climate scientists are divided on whether or not there is global warming the same way that Americans are divided about whether or not Ralph Nader should be president," says Eban Goodstein, an economics professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., who is founder of the Green House Network, a nonprofit working to stop global warming. Which is to say, they're not divided at all. "And without presidential leadership and given the hold that anti-government Republicans have, especially in the House, nothing will happen."

With the topic largely off the table in the presidential reelection bid, the nation loses not only more time, but an important chance for the president to educate the public about the biggest environmental threat to the country today.

"Global climate change is going to require a global solution," says Nigel Purvis, an environmental scholar at the Brookings Institution. "The president is a very important player on the issue of climate change. The power of the office to educate the American people does matter." But apparently not in the office of this president.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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