There was a lot of ungrounded optimism in the lead up to George W. Bush’s sixth State of the Union address last night, at least on the subject of global warming. The rumors and general unreality started more than a week in advance of the speech when the British Observer breathlessly reported that Bush would pull a full policy U-turn and endorse mandatory caps on industrial carbon dioxide emissions in the United States.
The idea that George W. Bush—even a politically chastened, unpopular, lame duck George W. Bush—might fundamentally reverse his position on carbon caps and, by implication, enter into a post-Kyoto embrace with Europe turned out to be exceedingly farfetched. Bush had never so much as mentioned “global warming” or “climate change” in any of his five State of the Union speeches up to this point. Last night, he barely improved upon that record, mouthing the phrase “global climate change” once and only once and vaguely suggesting that it should be dealt with through un-described technological advancements. The Observer has plenty of egg on its face today.
To be fair, Bush did describe some new measures that would help address the problem, in particular, improving fuel economy standards for gas guzzling vehicles. That’s a good idea and long overdue, but the fact remains that the president’s climate change policy lacks teeth. It’s an incomplete blend of voluntarism and reliance on technology, with no significant attention to the imposition of actual emission cuts; it is plainly inadequate to deal with the mega-scale and steadily worsening problem that is global climate change.
With his approval rating nearly as low as was Nixon’s when he resigned from the White House, Bush might have been expected to take some guidance from his core constituencies, the religious right and American big industry. A prominent coalition of evangelicals recently called for action on climate change, and key industry leaders this week announced their support of emissions caps (which would make their economic outlook much more predictable). Bush’s current plans fall far short of what even these presumed allies have suggested.
The sad truth is that Bush has not consistently been able to admit that human activities are the principal cause of global warming. Prior to Bush’s speech yesterday, in a woefully misleading statement that the White House press corps failed to challenge, Bush spokesman Tony Snow claimed that “as early as 2001 the President was acknowledging a manmade component to global climate change.” In fact, in the 2001 Rose Garden speech referred to, Bush artfully avoided admitting that humans are the principal cause of ongoing global warming. Read the speech yourself and see. As recently as last year Bush was still claiming that there was a “debate” over whether global warming is principally manmade or natural in origin.
Later this year, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release its Fourth Assessment Report, which is expected to conclude that the task of detecting the human fingerprint on ongoing climate change is basically a done deal at this point—the science is now more than 90 percent certain. That, and both the evangelical and industry acceptance of climate change and calls for action are positive developments. But there remain substantial hurdles—not least, Americans’ apathy on the subject. Polling data consistently show that global warming remains a low priority for the American public when compared to other policy issues, despite years upon years of discussion of the subject, loads of science, and ever-rising temperatures.
It falls to the Democrats who now control the US Congress to put the issue on the policy map—but that isn’t simple either. Among Democrats and more liberal Republicans, there are a host of competing climate bills that would set forward stronger and weaker policies. These will all have to be reconciled. Meanwhile, Democrats, too, have powerful forces within their ranks that want to preserve climate inaction, most notably a strong allegiance between labor unions and industry in many rural districts. Finally, even if a climate bill passes the Democratic Congress, there remains the possibility or likelihood of a Republican filibuster and presidential veto.
The realist in me suspects that if we’re any closer to a real climate policy today than we were in the year 2000, that’s only because Bush’s presidency is nearing its final stretch. A new president will be elected in late 2008 and will actually start doing things in 2009 and beyond. Unless it is somehow resolved by then, which seems exceedingly unlikely, the climate issue will play a major role during the 2008 campaign and the newly elected US leader will probably vow to deal with it. At that point, perhaps, things may start really happening.
For George W. Bush, though, I suspect global warming will be to his presidency what acid rain was to Ronald Reagan’s—an environmental issue where the president and his administration repeatedly questioned the science and managed to stall for eight full years. Meaningful action instead had to be taken on someone else’s watch, and by then the problem had worsened.
It’s yet another reminder—in case anyone needed one—of why we need to elect the right leaders in the first place.
Originally published January 24, 2007