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Bush on Global Warming -- An Aspirational Moment?

05/25/2011 12:05 pm ET
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

Washington, DC -- Last week I watched, perplexed, as the Administration did an exotic new three step dance on global warming. First, they sent our allies in Iraq, Britain and Germany, a blistering critique of the global warming proposal the Europeans had drafted for the G8 industrial nation summit. The administration red-lined virtually everything substantive in the draft, saying it had "overarching and fundamental concerns" with the document before concluding, in most undiplomatic language: "The treatment of climate change runs counter to our overall position and crosses multiple 'red lines' in terms of what we simply cannot agree to."

Nothing new here. But then, on Thursday, the White House breathlessly emailed me with an opportunity to "listen in" on Jim Connaughton of the White House Council on Environmental Quality as gave a briefing on "the G8, economic growth, energy security and climate change," but warned that my invitation was "non-transferable" and that only I, personally, would be allowed to use the access code # I had helpfully been provided. (Big Brother really is watching if they can tell that someone else is using my cell phone.)

Just before this briefing the president himself spoke and declared that, while he still isn't willing to join the Europeans in talking about a successor to the Kyoto Accords when they gather in Bali, he is now in favor of a separate set of new talks in which the 15 nations responsible for most of the global warming pollution would hold a series of "aspirational talks." These talks would have as their goal a set of essentially voluntary emissions goals for each nation; nations would have the flexibility (as they do under Kyoto) as to how they met those goals, but would also have the option not to achieve them at all if they so chose. It's hard to see how this differs from not having an agreement at all, and Connaughton got a very skeptical reception from the press. For the funniest version of this, check the Washington Post's Dana Milbank, who says "aspirational goals" are akin to 'having the body you want without diet or exercise...or getting rich without working." (Careful, Dana, Bush essentially did the latter.)

We won't have to worry, however, that Bush himself will weasel out of any global warming targets he might or might not agree to, since the voluntary pledges won't be made until the end of his term anyway.

Europe responded largely cynically -- unsurprising, given Bush's comments earlier in the week -- but some Europeans went out of their way to make clear that they saw some promise in what administration sources described as a "bottom-up" approach in which each country would initially offer its own commitments. They emphasized, however, that this initial stage must then flow into the UN negotiating process which will lead to a Kyoto successor.

Connaughton had an even tougher time than he might have because earlier in the morning NASA Administrator Michael Griffin had executed the third complicated maneuver in the dance, announcing that he saw no reason for anyone to do anything about global warming. Griffin, who is a scientist, was quite candid that global warming is real and that man is changing the climate.

To assume that is a problem is to assume that the state of the Earth's climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had and that we need to take steps to make sure it doesn't change.... I guess I would ask which human beings -- where and when -- are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we might have right here today, right now, is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that's a rather arrogant position for people to take.

Griffin apparently doesn't think it is arrogant of this generation of fossil fuel users to decide that the climate human societies have evolved and developed to cope with is going to be changed in unpredictable and destabilizing ways. This is truly one of the most astonishing explanations yet for inaction -- one can be reasonably certain that the people in Bangladesh, for example, would be perplexed that Griffin thinks we have no basis for deciding that it will be bad if climate change deals their nation death from both land and sea. (China is threatening to dry up the Brahmaputra River to cope with drier climate and sea level rise on the Bay of Bengal wipes out more and more of the country and its more than 150 million people.)

This three-part script may seem chaotic and disorganized, but behind it all there appears to be a very familiar plot line. To understand, it's helpful to look at what Rex Tillerson, the head of Exxon Mobil, said the same week at his annual meeting:

There's much we know and can agree on around the climate change issue, and there's much that we just don't believe we do know...and we want to have a debate about the things we know and understand, the things we know about that we don't understand very well, and the things we don't even know about around this very complex issue of climate science. So that will continue to be our position.

Compare that well-honed model of evasion to what Connaughton said, directly, when the press asked him when, under Bush's plan the world's emissions of global warming pollution would begin to decline. "That's the hard conversation we have to have." And the administration's own "aspirational goals"? "We are in a very active discussion about this now."

So really, there is no substantive disagreement between ExxonMobil and Bush. So why the hoopla? We know there are forces inside the administration that want action. Treasury Secretary Paulson is on record to that effect, and sources inside EPA tell me that Administrator Johnson, the only federal official who actually faces a Supreme Court mandamus order commanding him to regulate CO2, agrees. And the looming G8 movement gave them a deadline around which to organize.

But once again, as when Christy Todd Whitman, back in 2001, promised the Europeans the US would act, the good guys lost. Dick Cheney didn't surface this week to shoot down the idea of joining the rest of the world, and Paulson didn't get publicly humiliated as Whitman did -- but the White House script remains the same: Don't act, run out the clock, and après Bush, le Deluge.

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