Bush's Climate Follies

By withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol--the attempt by 160
nations to forge a treaty that will reduce worldwide emissions from coal
combustion and oil burning, thus averting a global-warming catastrophe--President
George W. Bush trashed years of work by European negotiators just as he was about
to make his European diplomatic debut.

By declaring climate science "unsettled" and calling on the National Academy
of Sciences (NAS) to review the dire findings of the United Nations-sponsored
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), he made an even greater
miscalculation. For just as domestic attention focused on the infuriated
Europeans, the NAS reported back that the international panel was, in fact,
correct.

The outrage in Europe and Japan over Bush's pullout from the three-year-old
Kyoto talks--not to mention the Cheney-Bush energy plan to increase
fossil-fuel burning by the world's biggest fuel burner--was loud and nearly
unanimous. The thousands of angry demonstrators who greeted Bush in Spain and
Sweden mirrored the reaction of European leaders. The Swedish government
described the Kyoto withdrawal as appalling and provocative. Other crucial
nations were just as clear. Not only Japan and Brazil but also Australia and
Canada--coal-rich countries that had both supported U.S. foot-dragging in earlier
negotiations--called on Bush to reverse his decision. Even Chinese officials
blasted it as "irresponsible." (China's position was put in perspective by a
recent New York Times report indicating that the country had cut carbon
emissions by 17 percent since 1997, even as its economy grew by 36 percent. By
contrast, U.S. emissions have risen by 4.5 percent in the same period
though the American economy grew far less.) "This is not just an environmental
issue," said British Environment Minister Michael Meacher, summing up the
magnitude of Bush's diplomatic trouble. "It's an issue of transatlantic global
foreign policy."

A succession of countries have now vowed to pursue the Kyoto goals without the
United States. It will be a tough haul, since this country is the source of 25
percent of the world's carbon emissions and the treaty goes into effect only if
it is ratified by 55 nations whose combined emissions account for at least 55
percent of the worldwide total. It will be even tougher if the Bush
administration succeeds in pressuring the Japanese to drop out of the process.
But if, as seems likely, the rest of the industrialized world nonetheless goes
forward with climate-stabilizing efforts, these will further embarrass and
isolate the United States diplomatically--and Bush domestically. Economically,
too, we will be left out. As other countries meet emissions goals by deploying
more clean-energy resources, Bush's policies will further cripple America's
renewable-energy industry and, ultimately, turn the United States into consumers,
rather than producers, of wind farms, solar systems, and fuel cells.

Meanwhile, regardless of how the Kyoto efforts fare, "the United States now
stands indicted in the court of public opinion as an environmental rogue nation,"
according to Phil Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, an
influential advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. Clapp added: "Bush's trip
may turn out to be the landmark loss of America's moral authority around the
world."

The diplomatic debacle, however, could pale in comparison to the political
damage at home. A relentless 10-year campaign of disinformation by the
fossil-fuel lobby had left many Americans uncertain about the reliability of
climate science and unmoved by the findings of the UN panel on global warming,
even though the ongoing IPCC research, under-taken by 2,000 scientists from 100
countries, is the largest, most transparent, and most rigorously peer-reviewed
scientific collaboration in history. But when the Cheney-Bush team decided that
the IPCC suffered from what their Senate point men on the issue called an
"internationalist perspective"--when the administration determined that Americans
should trust only the "American science" of the NAS--they made a mistake that may
prove to be their undoing.

The NAS report affirmed that the earth's climate is changing faster than at
any time in 10,000 years and that human activities are the cause. Moreover,
"American science" also echoed the international panel's concerns about future
food crises and the very real potential for global warming to transform America's
wheat fields into deserts. The NAS even suggested that the international panel,
which had predicted a sea rise of up to three feet and temperature increases of
up to 10 degrees Fahrenheit, had understated the catastrophic potential: By
limiting its projections to the next 100 years, the IPCC "may well underestimate
the magnitude of the eventual impacts," the NAS found. The report, which
generated front-page headlines across the country, will likely mark a watershed
in American public opinion.

The White House could have saved itself a lot of grief had it done even a
cursory history check. It would have found, for starters, that about half the
scientists on the international panel--and a majority of its lead authors--are
Americans. In fact, back in 1992, despite the lack of definitive evidence at that
time, the NAS had already concluded that "greenhouse warming poses a potential
threat sufficient to merit prompt response" and advised that "mitigation measures
act as insurance protection against the great uncertainties and the possibility
of dramatic surprises."

But Bush allowed himself to be waltzed into a political dead end by the
Neanderthal wing of the fossil-fuel lobby--led by ExxonMobil and the Western
Fuels Association--and their paid academic mouthpieces, a group of "greenhouse
skeptics" who have long been regarded as laughingstocks in the mainstream
scientific community. (In February the most reckless and widely quoted of them,
Dr. S. Fred Singer, declared in a letter to The Washington Post that he had
received no oil industry funding for more than 20 years; but ExxonMobil documents
reveal that Singer received thousands of dollars from the oil giant as recently
as 1998.)

By 1991, Western Fuels and several coal utilities had launched a
half-million-dollar public-relations campaign to "reposition global warming as
theory rather than fact." According to its strategy papers, the campaign was
designed to target "older, less-educated men ... [and] young, low-income women"
in areas where electricity was derived from coal and, preferably, in districts
that had a representative on the House Energy Committee.

Following that fraudulent campaign, Western Fuels spent $250,000 on a
propaganda video to convince audiences that global warming will actually benefit
humanity by increasing crop yields to help feed an expanding population. The
video was shown often in the White House during the first Bush presidency
(insiders called it the "favorite movie" of John Sununu, George the elder's chief
of staff). Of course, the video overlooked at least two critical factors. The
first is bugs: Insects are extremely sensitive to temperature changes-- and
scientists agree that as the earth warms, we will see a big increase in the
population of crop-destroying, disease-spreading insects. Plant biologists point
out an even more unconscionable omission: While higher carbon dioxide levels in
the earth's atmosphere may temporarily increase plant growth near the Arctic
Circle, they will decimate food crops in the tropical regions. Even a half-degree
increase in the average temperature will cause a big fall in Southeast Asia's
rice yields and a 20 percent drop in India's wheat crop. Nonetheless, until now,
the fossil-fuel lobby had been extraordinarily successful in maintaining a
drumbeat of doubt in the public mind. Far exceeding the reach of traditional
spin, the campaign had very nearly accomplished the privatization of scientific
truth. But with the National Academy's new report, the game is up.

One particularly telling casualty is the most academically respectable of all
the "greenhouse skeptics." Dr. Richard Lindzen of the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, one of the 11 authors of the NAS report, has maintained for years
that global warming is inherently self-limiting and that its impacts will be
negligible. Lindzen has argued that atmospheric water vapor will not amplify
warming, as other scientists assume, because it will naturally dry out at higher
altitudes. But the National Academy concludes that "water vapor feedback ... is
expected to increase" and that the warming trend is "consistent with ... the
increase in upper-air water vapor and rainfall rates over most regions."

In other words, Lindzen--who receives $2,500 a day to consult for coal-and-oil
interests such as Western Fuels, the Australian coal-mining lobby, and
OPEC--signed off on a report that essentially rejects his own hypothesis.

Thanks to the NAS report, the American public, already unsettled by the vivid
evidence of increasing weather extremes, now has permission to accept the grim
projections of mainstream science. And as events unfold, more and more people
will make connections between the heating of the atmosphere and events like last
summer's 64,000 drought-driven wildfires in the western United States; last
year's record-breaking 84-day drought, which cost farmers in northern Texas $600
million; this spring's long drought in the Pacific Northwest, which is
intensifying California's power crisis by drying up its seasonal supply of
hydropower; and last month's 35-inch rainfall in Texas, which left 20 dead and $2
billion in losses in Houston.

Given the inevitability of increasingly intense floods, droughts, heat waves,
and storms--as well as the warming-driven proliferation of infectious diseases
like West Nile virus and Lyme disease--a public disabused of its scientific
doubts will have much to be angry about. Global warming could do to George W.
Bush what the Vietnam War did to Lyndon Johnson 33 years ago--leave him with a
prematurely crippled, one-term presidency.

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