TCS Daily

Bush's Climate Echo

By Nick Schulz - July 12, 2002 12:00 AM

The Bush administration tried to defend its policies on climate change on Capitol Hill yesterday and failed spectacularly.

Sitting before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, Glenn Hubbard, the Chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) and Jim Connoughton, the Chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) took turns fending off questions from Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who was chairing a hearing on the administration's recently released Climate Action Report. Efforts to defend its policy are now a fool's errand - and the administration's position will prove politically costly in the future.

The problem with the White House's position on climate change is simple. It has abandoned the scientific debate to focus on what it believes is its strength: the economic debate. Only it doesn't marshal the important economic points either.

Let's take these in turn. First, the science. Jim Connaughton (who, along with Christie Whitman is largely responsible for the administration's Climate Action Report) believes that human activities are warming the planet - primarily through the burning of fossil fuels and the resultant increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In other words, he buys into the anthropogenic theory of global warming, the one embraced by everyone from Al Gore to Sen. Jim Jeffords to Leo DiCaprio. And Connaughton does this despite the fact that there is insufficient evidence to do so (see Dr. Sallie Baliunas' testimony before Sen. Jeffords' Environment Committee).

In going down this road, the administration has abandoned its best reason for opposing massive energy suppression schemes such as the Kyoto treaty or Sen. Jeffords' energy suppression legislation.

The administration believes it can abandon the scientific debate because even if it doesn't have the environmental science on its side, that's no problem because it has economics on its side. That's why President Bush never discusses the science of climate change and instead maintains he won't do anything that will harm the American economy. The problem with this tack is that after abandoning the science, the administration's economic arguments have become muddled as well.

Sen. Kerry spent a good half hour shredding the administration's plan, which calls for reducing greenhouse gas "emission intensity" by 18 percent instead of actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He pulled the economic rug out from under Hubbard by pointing out that in many ways, fixed greenhouse gas reduction targets - e.g. the kind in the Kyoto protocol designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels - are preferable from an economic standpoint. How so? Because this will ensure businesses and large energy producers and consumers greater "regulatory certainty" than under the administration's emission intensity reduction plan.

Now, reasonable people can debate the merits of Kerry's claims, but amazingly, Hubbard didn't. He agreed with Kerry! Up to a point: His only quibble was that the regulatory apparatus necessary to impose a fixed cap on greenhouse gas emissions wasn't in place yet. As a matter of fact, Hubbard went on, that's precisely what the president's plan - implemented in stages - is designed to do: build a regulatory apparatus necessary so that fixed caps on emissions are possible. "If we want to get the world on a path to reducing emissions," he said, the president's plan is the first step.

So there you have it - the administration now sees eye to eye with Al Gore, Lester Brown, Kofi Annan, Sens. Jim Jeffords, Barbara Boxer, and John Kerry. The United States and the rest of the world need to drastically reduce carbon emissions - they just want to do it a little more slowly than everyone else.

There is another economic argument that is simpler to make and is in many ways more important, but the administration seems unwilling, or unable, to articulate it. They could say - indeed, they should say, because the science supports this argument -- that catastrophic climate changes (not anthropogenic but natural) are possible if not likely. Climate systems are enormously complex and dynamic, influenced by countless factors from gases to the sun to our orbit in the solar system, so almost anything is possible: another ice age, a warming period, natural disasters, etc. So the best long-term strategy is to encourage "adaptive capacity," as MIT climatologist Richard Lindzen calls it.

Adaptive capacity is nothing more than the ability to address and deal with climate changes of any kind. Another word for adaptive capacity is "wealth." (Just look at how the United States is able to deal with natural disasters as opposed to other nations in our own hemisphere, like Haiti. Since we are wealthier, our citizens can evacuate areas more quickly, build flood walls, build temporary shelters, etc.) Lowering emissions intensity, as the White House is now advocating, will do nothing to help generate wealth. Indeed, it will put a brake on wealth generation, both in the United States and around the globe. And that is a loser of a strategy for dealing with climate change of all kinds.

In 1964 Barry Goldwater ran for President saying that he wanted to offer voters "a choice, not an echo." The Bush administration - in the form of Glenn Hubbard, John Connaughton, and Christie Whitman - is now offering an echo of what Al Gore was pushing for in 2000, and what Sen. John Kerry will be pushing if he chooses to run for president in 2004.

That's too bad for voters in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas and Ohio who helped give Bush the presidency. They certainly thought they were getting a choice. "Yes, only slower," is not a choice. It's an echo.

URL Next Door - The Kass Council has published its report on cloning. This is an important work that will shape the debate for the rest of the year on cloning and biomedicine. There are few, if any, more consequential scientific debates today. In particular you should read the personal statements published by the commission members. This is public philosophy -- coupled with scientific discourse -- at its most compelling.



TCS Daily Archives