June 19, 2002 | Commentary on Energy and Environment

Administration Speaks with Forked Tongue on Global Warming

In March 2001, President Bush rejected the Kyoto Treaty on global warming in part, he said at the time, because of "the incomplete state of scientific knowledge of the causes of, and solutions to, global climate change."

Yet, on June 4, less than 15 months later, his administration submitted a report to the United Nations that blames human activities for climate change and predicts environmental doom unless consumers significantly change their ways.

Why the about-face? There's been no significant scientific breakthrough on climate change since last year. Those responsible for ensuring the report reflects administration policy remain in place.

And it's not like the White House can claim someone slipped the report to the United Nations. According to The New York Times, top brass at the Environmental Protection Agency, possibly including EPA head Christine Todd Whitman, examined the report before it was released, as did officials at the White House and unspecified other government agencies.

Yet, when asked about the document, President Bush seemed to try to distance himself from its findings. He confirmed he had "read the report put out by the bureaucracy," but added that the provisions of Kyoto "would seriously damage the American economy, and I don't accept that."

All of which begs the question: What is the president's policy on global warming? Do human activities cause or exacerbate it, or not? If so, how bad is the problem, and what does the president plan to do to reduce America's contribution to this global menace? If not, why are other administration officials-people who work for him-releasing reports that contradict his policies?

Did Whitman simply do this on her own to upstage the president, as some media reports suggested? She's had her differences with him on approaches to environmental problems before. But not this time, according to her office. The report, said her spokesman, contains nothing new. And anyway, Whitman "agrees with the president that his plan is the best approach to dealing with greenhouse gases."

Is that last month's plan? Or is some new plan in the offing?

No new plan, says President Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleisher, who stressed the "remaining uncertainties of climate change" and reiterated that the administration's opposition to the Kyoto Accords has not waned.

No new policy? No new plan? No change in position? What's going on here?

The fact is, the report-so long as it is not disavowed-does represent a significant change in administration thinking. Not for nothing did conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh, after learning of the flip-flop, refer to the president as "George W. Algore"-suggesting he had adopted former Vice-President Gore's view that man plays a major role in producing global warming.

Scientists have yet to establish how much, if any, humans have to do with causing climate change. Global-warming theorists claim man-made gases, such as those released from burning fossil fuels for energy, will warm the Earth's temperature to dangerous levels and endanger life on the planet within the next 100 years absent drastic action, particularly by developed countries.

The Kyoto treaty attempts to address this by requiring significant cuts in fossil-fuel emissions by developed countries, especially the United States. In the past-as in no more than a month ago-President Bush opposed the Kyoto approach because, he said, "it would harm our economy and hurt our workers" to undertake the drastic changes necessary to comply and because it asks little of developing countries, often the worst polluters.

To cut carbon emissions to the levels mandated by Kyoto, Americans would face huge increases in costs and cutbacks in supplies of energy. Which would be closer to acceptable if there was any evidence our suffering would do much good.

However, The Wall Street Journal reported that Professor Bjorn Lomborg, former Greenpeace activist, devoted environmentalist and author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist," says the scientific documentation supporting Kyoto says earth's temperature will rise 1.2 degrees Celsius by 2100 with the treaty or by 2094-a mere six years earlier-without. And that's if-as seems most unlikely-no alternative to fossil fuels emerges.

Americans elected President Bush because they wanted clear thinking on issues such as this. They wanted a president committed to the environment and to providing adequate energy. They didn't want double-talk designed to appease environmental alarmists or renegade aides making national policy on their own.

And they certainly didn't want to pay millions of dollars in higher energy costs on the basis of questionable science.

Charli Coon is senior policy analyst for energy and the environment for The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

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