TCS Daily

The Media's Know-Nothings

By Duane D. Freese - May 25, 2006 12:00 AM

Nothing isn't what it used to be.

Washington Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby recently reviewed Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth." He argued that President Bush "refused to let his administration do anything about climate." And last month New York Times columnist Paul Krugman made the same claim: "most governments have done little to curb greenhouse gases, and the Bush administration has done nothing ..."

One is tempted to ask whether they are being Clintonesque, with nothing depending upon their definitions of nothing. But assuming they were being honest, one can only wonder where they gathered their evidence that the Bush administration was doing nothing.

Obviously it was not from reading Gregg Easterbrook in The New Republic, who in February last year, wrote: "[T]he notion that Bush has done nothing at all about greenhouse gases can only be sustained if you ignore what he has done."

What has that been? Easterbrook was writing about a program called Methane to Markets, which the Bush administration negotiated among several countries in 2004. He noted that most news outlets didn't report a thing about it. Yet, the program promises a reduction in methane -- a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than the carbon dioxide that is the focus of most news reporting -- equal to the reductions in greenhouse gases from the more heralded Kyoto Protocol.

One of the fruits of the methane to markets program came last week. China, a chief emitter of methane from its coal mines, has signed an agreement to buy 60 methane generators from Caterpillar Inc. for $58 million. The generators will take in the methane from its largest coal mine, reducing explosions and improving safety and health in the mines while providing 120 megawatts of electricity with reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Neither the Post nor the Times thought that worthy of reporting, nor did most other mainstream media outside of the business press. After all it's a "good news" story -- a kind of win-win-win-win scenario for health, safety, economics and the environment that the mainstream media are loath to report.

And besides, how can you write about the fruit of a program that you've barely acknowledged exists? The Post provided but one brief story about it on its inside pages back in November of 2004, and then gave it mention in a little science brief about a Princeton study that found "reducing emissions of methane ... by 20% from current levels would prevent an estimated 370,000 premature deaths worldwide between 2010 and 2030." And that's nothing compared to The New York Times reporting, which about methane to markets amounted to nothing googleable at all.

All of which may explain the frustration of James Connaughton, President Bush's chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality at a presentation at the American Enterprise Institute the day Mallaby's column appeared. He said he felt like asking the administration's critics such as Mallaby: "What part of 'yes' don't you understand?"

He said there is no longer any debate going on in the administration about the science of climate change nor that there is human contribution to warming. He said there is even consensus among policymakers here and abroad on the scope of action and places where it's needed and the type of arrangements required to help limit that contribution.

Connaughton pointed to 60 federal programs "designed to help reduce emissions by 500 million metric tons of carbon-equivalent (greenhouse gases) through 2012;" voluntary programs, such as Climate VISION, that aim to reduce carbon intensity -- the amount of carbon emissions for a given amount of economic activity -- by 18% by 2012; and federal spending on climate change programs of $26 billion since Bush came into office, about half of which has gone to researching new technology.

Where the administration runs afoul of its critics' demands -- and is considered to be doing nothing -- is in the promotion of caps on carbon emissions. The critics want to force carbon-emitting industries to cap emissions and then allow those who reduce their emissions below their cap to sell credits to those who fail to meet them. But such cap and trade schemes would do little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Without China and India participating, costly carbon caps will prompt the movement of industrial emissions abroad -- where they will likely be spewed out in greater amounts through dirtier technology.

That is something that the Mallabys and Krugmans and most environmentalists overlook -- you can't force these countries to do what you want. You have to understand their economic and moral need to lift millions of people out of poverty quickly. They will put this goal ahead of reducing greenhouse emissions any day. And who can blame them? Further, from a political standpoint, you aren't going to get far with significant carbon curbs if they hurt your own economy, a fact that helps to explain why the Clinton administration did less than the Bush administration on climate change, if you look at the record.

What can do something to influence what is going on in China and India? As Connaughton pointed out, you can make a deal with them to provide them cleaner, better, safer, healthier, more advanced technology -- if they agree to protect the intellectual property of those who invent that technology. And you can seek to ensure that you don't wipe out incentives here for the development of the kind of clean technology they might buy -- in particular clean coal. You want coal cleaned up as a source of electricity, so as to pass on the technology to coal-dependent nations such as China and India. But it is unlikely these clean-coal technologies will develop if carbon caps force utilities to switch to natural gas.

What's more, recent real-world experience with carbon caps undercuts the arguments of the administration's critics. Canada has indicated it won't meet its caps under Kyoto, and Europe is heading toward failure as well.

Meanwhile, Bush's sweet nothings of Methane to Markets, his Asian Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate Change (AP6), and his promotion of investment in technological development here and its spread through free trade and intellectual property protection abroad are producing measurable gains already with the China-Caterpillar deal.

Of course, don't expect to hear about those gains from Mallaby or Krugman or the rest of mainstream major media. Much like Sergeant Schulz, the guard in Hogan's Heroes who turned a blind eye to the POW's shenanigans, saying, "I know nothing! Nothing!" so he didn't have to report them to Colonel Klink, so they maintain a willful ignorance of the administration's climate activities so as not to complicate their case that the administration is doing nothing -- see nothing positive, hear nothing positive, report nothing positive.

Duane Freese is Deputy Editor of TCS Daily.


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