Climate Challenge

Normally, when two of the president's key advisers publicly contradict each other -- see Colin Powell versus Donald Rumsfeld during George W. Bush's first term -- it's a big story. But when the issue is the literally world-altering problem of global climate change, apparently it's nothing more than occasion for a yawn from the news media.

Earlier this month James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, made a stunning statement about the science of climate change. Speaking with the BBC, Connaughton claimed, ''We are still working on the issue of causation, the extent to which humans are a factor" in global warming. This is years behind the state of scientific understanding. As Peter Gleick of the Oakland, California-based Pacific Institute countered in The New York Times letters section, "Most of us in the climate field are no longer working on causation, but on understanding and reducing the worst economic, social, and environmental consequences of what now appears to be unavoidable and severe climatic change."

Connaughton's statement prompted some typical hand-wringing among environmentalists about the Bush administration's ongoing state of denial about climate change. What it should have prompted -- but didn't -- was an immediate contrast with statements that Bush science adviser and physicist John Marburger has been going around and making across the country lately.

Speaking at Princeton University in early March, Marburger reportedly stated, "Global warming exists, and we have to do something about it, and what we have to do about it is reduce [carbon dioxide]." In February at the University of Colorado, meanwhile, Marburger stated, "The climate is changing, the surface temperature of the earth is warming, there is a greenhouse effect, [carbon dioxide] is a greenhouse gas, it has increased substantially since the beginning of the industrial revolution, and it is caused by human activity."

The divergent remarks from Connaughton and Marburger represent the latest episode in a four-and-a-half-year game this administration has played with the American public. Again and again, we have seen statements emerge from some branch of the government, frequently in the form of scientific reports, to the effect that climate change is real, caused by humans, and serious. But we have also subsequently seen backtracking, obfuscation, and skepticism about the findings of mainstream climate science.

This pattern seems to reflect a tension within the administration between intellectual honesty and homage to fossil-fuel interests. But the problem is only exacerbated by the fact that, with some exceptions (particularly the work of Andrew Revkin of The New York Times), the journalism community as a whole has not forced the president or the administration to actually hew to a consistent position on global warming.

As the climate issue blips onto and off of the media's radar, the administration pays it as much attention as necessary. Then once the attention dies down, business as usual resumes. Episodic news coverage presents problems for any serious long-term policy issue, but nowhere more so than for something like global climate change, which represents, somewhat paradoxically, an extremely slow-moving disaster.

Meanwhile, in this state of impasse, different Bush advisers, like Marburger and Connaughton, seem to go about presenting very different pictures in the name of the administration. And each can make a case that they're reflecting the views of the president.

For his part, Marburger constantly cites a speech Bush delivered on June 11, 2001. The speech itself came in response to a National Academy of Sciences report that, in its opening two sentences, emphasized the role of humans in causing global warming: "Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise. Temperatures are, in fact, rising." Reacting to the study, Condoleezza Rice stated, "This is a president who takes extremely seriously what we do know about climate change, which is essentially that there is warming taking place." And, indeed, Bush's speech following this report represented the closest he has ever come to fully accepting the scientific consensus on global warming.

Yet the Connaughton camp, too, has evidence to draw upon suggesting that its members are aligned with Bush's wishes, such as the president's 2002 denunciation of the Environmental Protection Agency's Climate Action Report -- which took the issue seriously -- as a "report put out by the bureaucracy." Reflecting this disdain for government-employed experts, Connaughton's Council on Environmental Quality subsequently attempted to edit a later EPA report to turn statements about the science of climate change into absolute mush.

I suspect that if ever the news media were to bother to get on Bush's case about global warming in a serious and sustained way, the administration would be forced to rein in the likes of Connaughton and fall back on the stronger Marburger stance. Ironically, this move wouldn't necessarily satisfy environmental advocates. The administration could then argue, much more defensibly, that it accepts the science of climate change but that the Kyoto Protocol simply isn't the answer. Such a stance, observes Roger Pielke Jr., director of the University of Colorado's Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, would undercut "those who have used science to hammer the Bush administration" -- including this columnist.

Pielke wonders whether Bush is actually "politically canny enough to take this step." So far, the president seems content to leave us all guessing, while temperatures continue to rise.

Chris Mooney is a Prospect senior correspondent whose TAP Online column appears each week. His book on the politicization of science will be published later this year by Basic Books. His daily blog and other writings can be found at www.chriscmooney.com.

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