The world's leading scientists now agree that burning fossil fuels could induce dire changes in the climate during this century. Yet the prospects for stanching the problem look grimmer than ever under incoming president George W. Bush.
Like a gullible customer in a used car lot, Bush has bought into the proselytizing of the special interests who profit from the nation's fossil fuel addiction. He would be better off looking across the Atlantic Ocean, to the example of America's arch-allies in the United Kingdom, who are taking climate change seriously and are actually doing something about it.
During the presidential debates, candidate Bush gazed into the camera and parroted the propaganda of the oil industry: that the climate science is uncertain, and that we shouldn't spend money addressing a hypothetical problem.
Since winning the presidency, things have only gotten worse. Bush has nominated a cabinet of like-minded people, for whom "seeing green" would have more to do with assuring the flow of dollars to the petroleum and auto industries than with safeguarding their grandchildren's environmental future. His commerce secretary - like Bush himself - is an oilman. America's vast wilderness soaks up carbon, but interior secretary Gale Norton is a patron of the James Watt "chop-em-down and pave-em" school of forest management. And Bush's chief of staff Andrew Card and his energy secretary Spencer Abraham have a history of fighting against automobile fuel efficiency measures that would help allay climate change and save Americans money at the gas pump.
Nor is there much hope that the administration's environmental arm will show leadership. Environmental Protection Agency administrator-designate Christine Todd Whitman revealed in an interview with the New York Times that she doesn't even have a rudimentary knowledge of the science of climate change (she confused it with ozone layer depletion).
Before he travels overseas as president, there's something Bush should know that his smokestack cabinet is unlikely to tell him: he now heads the world's biggest spoiled brat of climate change.
Anyone familiar with the Kyoto climate change treaty knows that it has always been a sweetheart deal for the United States. American lawmakers grouse that the treaty doesn't require cuts from the developing world. But industrialized countries are overwhelmingly responsible that have filled the atmosphere with excess carbon over the past century and a half, and we're the ones most likely to come up with the technology to fix the mess.
Bush should also know that among industrialized countries, the U.S. is by far the biggest climate culprit. Europeans produce less than half the carbon pollution per capita that Americans do. They drive smaller cars and fewer miles. They commute on trains. Their houses aren't as balmy in the winter or as cool in the summer.Many don't have clothes dryers, not to mention the panoply of kitchen appliances Americans depend on.They tend to turn lights off when they don't need them. Yet the treaty requires Europeans to reduce their emissions by 8 percent by 2010; the U.S. would only have to cut 7 percent. So the U.S. would still be, by far, the biggest climate culprit.
Remarkably, Europeans are committing themselves to action. The United Kingdom, for one, has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by a full 20 percent below 1990 levels, well beyond what the Kyoto treaty calls for. Industry leaders explain that the country is eager to become a world leader on efficiency. Other countries are following suit.
The new administration should take a closer look. After all, the do-nothing approach favored by many of Bush's campaign donors from the hydrocarbon industry may leave us ill-prepared for the future, the same way that the auto industry got caught with its pants down during the energy crunch of the 1970s.
Have the Brits gone mad? No. Like most Europeans, British leaders listen to scientists rather than the petroleum industry. Scientists are telling them that climate change could be humanity's Waterloo. Moreover, they figure that reducing carbon emissions - which mainly means cutting down on fossil-fuel consumption - makes good sense even if climate change weren't a threat. After all, why not reduce dependence on imports from OPEC, particularly if you can save money in the process? Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott calls Britain's program "gain, not pain." And the Pew Center on Global Climate Change has concluded that it will likely achieve its goals.
How will United Kingdom perform this miracle?
For starters, the country has already made great strides toward reducing carbon output. In the early 1990s, the government enacted tougher environmental laws and energy liberalization policies that are smarter and much more consumer-oriented than California's. This fostered real competition and brought about a large reduction in the country's emissions, while decreasing utility bills by as much as 40 percent.
More recently, the U.K. has begun requiring utilities to help customers increase their home energy efficiency. Aided by a public-private venture called the Energy Savings Trust, utilities must achieve efficiency targets, for example by helping customers purchase energy efficient furnaces, insulate their houses or install low-energy lighting. These programs help taxpayers save money on their utility bills, they return a positive investment for the country, and they help the UK meet its Kyoto target.
Publicly, George W. Bush might be tempted to decry this type of government expenditure, but as an oilman he no doubt knows that the American petroleum industry is subsidized to the tune of billions of dollars per year.
The U.K. is also mandating alternative energy production. By 2010, utilities will need to increase the country's renewable energy supply from 2 percent to 10 percent. Like the U.S., the U.K. has enormous potential to harness wind energy, and BP, its biggest petroleum firm, owns the world's largest solar company. Such clean energy is still more expensive than fossil fuels, but this modest goal will hardly break the bank: the government estimates that it will add a mere $1 per month to the average utility bill. (Other European countries have an even more aggressive and successful renewables programs; see related article on Germany's success with wind power).
Renewable energy is one area where there is at least a glimmer of hope in the new administration. To be sure, Bush's energy policy focuses heavily on fossil fuels, and includes destructive measures like opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploitation. But in Texas, thanks to the lobbying of environmentalists and Bush's friend and benefactor Sam Wiley, a wealthy entrepreneur who owns Green Mountain Power, Governor Bush signed a bill akin to the U.K. law, setting minimum requirements for alternative energy in Texas.
As a champion of tax reform, the incoming president might want to study what is perhaps the most important British policy for curbing carbon emissions: a 20 percent "climate change levy" on businesses, to be phased in starting April 2001. This is the type of innovative tax that smart economists have been demanding for decades: nearly all the revenues from the climate change levy will be used to offset labor taxes.
The new levy raises the cost of bad behavior (carbon pollution) while at the same time reducing the cost of good behavior (employment). It's not a new tax: government revenue is projected to stay the same. Unlike a labor tax - which can only be reduced by firing people - companies can easily reduce their tax burden by turning off lights, photocopiers and computers. And about 10 percent of the total revenues from the climate change levy will go to help companies needing capital for efficiency improvements. In this time of economic downturn, the new president would do well to remember that the remarkable boom of the Clinton years was fueled by increases in worker efficiency: the country did more for less. Why couldn't we achieve the same in the Bush era by increasing energy efficiency? Europe's economy promises to be more efficient thanks to its forward-looking climate change policy.
Based on Bush's emerging brain trust, however, we wouldn't advise Americans to hold their breath.