At one point during his speech on climate change, President Bush looked up from his prepared remarks, furrowed his brow, and stared directly out at his audience and the cameras.
"We are doing a lot to protect this environment," he declared. Throughout the entire speech Bush seemed put upon, but the extra emphasis only underlined his stance of annoyance, as if anyone who could not see how much his administration had done to protect the earth was being inexcusably rude.
How you interpret his speech depends a good deal on how much credence you are willing to give his assertion. If you believe that Bush's environmental record is the worst of any modern president, that his administration has worked consistently to both weaken and block enforcement of environmental protection laws, that his Environmental Protection Agency has been a hideous joke, and that protecting the interests of the energy industry has been his first priority, well then, you are not likely to take very seriously his newfound allegiance to the cause of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, you might be more inclined to think that his new initiative is nothing more than a feeble, lame-duck attempt to get Congress moving on minimally effective greenhouse gas emission limits, so as to forestall the chance that the next Congress and president will introduce legislation with teeth.
But if you believed him, if you were impressed by resolute seriousness -- this was not the folksy, joke-cracking, self-deprecating Bush; no, this was Bush doing his best imitation of a statesman, which, unfortunately for him, makes him sound more like a hectoring martinet than an inspiring leader -- then, well, your faith in human nature is to be applauded.
Bush did not offer much in terms of substance: He reiterated his belief that accelerating the deployment of new technology was the only "responsible approach" to tackling climate change, and he restated his opposition to new regulations or punitive taxes that would, he said, "cripple the economy." He expressed high dudgeon at the various legal attempts to force his administration's hand by bringing greenhouse gas regulation under the ambit of the Clean Air Act or other existing laws. California, in other words, seems to be really jerking his chain. He also warned America not to abandon nuclear power or the hope of clean coal.
He never mentioned the words "cap-and-trade." The Wall Street Journal reported that the words were stricken from the speech at the last minute after protests from industry lobbyists. But in one key segment, he seemed to outline a proposal that sounded quite a bit like the nucleus of a cap-and-trade system.
I believe part of any solution means reforming today's complicated mix of incentives to make the commercialization and use of new, lower emission technologies more competitive.
First, the incentive should be carbon-weighted to make lower emission power sources less expensive relative to higher emissions sources, and it should take into account our nation's energy security needs.
Second, the incentive should be technology-neutral because the government should not be picking winners and losers in this emerging market.
Third, the incentive should be long-lasting. It should provide a positive and reliable market signal not only for the investment in a technology, but also for the investments in domestic manufacturing capacity and infrastructure that will help lower costs and scale up availability.
What could "carbon-weighted" mean besides putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions? What is more technology neutral than a cap-and-trade system that channels investment toward lower-emission power sources without differentiating how emissions are lowered? What could be more long-lasting than a governmental decision to cap the amount of greenhouse gas emissions industry can generate, with the proviso that the cap be adjusted as the situation warrants?
What's missing, of course, from President Bush's formulation is the nitty-gritty of how "carbon-weighting" would be implemented. But there's no getting around the fact that government regulation, and enforcement, will be required. And however you add that up, it will amount to a tax on greenhouse gas emission-intensive power generation.
With that inevitability in mind, it's not hard to understand why President Bush looked annoyed throughout his entire speech. For nearly two terms his administration has resisted taking any substantive action on climate change. Future generations are not likely to remember him fondly for it. Now, as his administration settles firmly into lame-duck status, he is belatedly attempting to exercise the pretense of leadership. But there's little appetite, anymore, for this nation to suspend its disbelief.