White House Denies Climate Policy U-Turn

The State of our Union … is suffering from global warming?

The White House is flatly denying a British report today in The Observer newspaper in which British officials say they expect President Bush to reverse himself during his annual State of the Union address on Jan. 23 and commit to an agreement to curb greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States.

"[The story] is inaccurate on all fronts," a White House official said, "and especially regarding the State of the Union."

While the Bush administration denies the British report, there are signs at the White House that might fuel such speculation.

Just last month, the Bush administration recognized the effects of global warming by adding polar bears to the list of "threatened" animals under the Endangered Species Act. U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne acknowledged that the polar bears' environment was slowly deteriorating from melting ice sheets caused by global warming.

At the time, it was unclear whether the announcement was part of a larger plan to modify U.S. climate change policy, but British officials say it may have been the beginning of a strategic U-turn.

A source close to British Prime Minister Tony Blair told The Observer, "President Bush is beginning to talk about more radical measures. We could now be seeing the beginning of a consensus on a post-Kyoto framework."

Bush declined to sign the Kyoto protocol first proposed in 1997 and put into effect last year. The agreement among 160 countries, made under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), called for "industrialized countries to reduce their collective emissions of greenhouse gases by 5.2 percent compared to the year 1990."

President Bush agreed with the overall goal of Kyoto, but refused to sign an agreement he said is flawed.

"America's unwillingness to embrace a flawed treaty should not be read by our friends and allies as any abdication of responsibility," Bush said in 2001. "To the contrary, my administration is committed to a leadership role on the issue of climate change."

While the president has declined to abide by regulations imposed in the Kyoto protocol, the California legislature recently reached an agreement with Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to limit greenhouse-gas emissions.

California's Global Warming Solutions Act, passed on Aug. 31, 2006, proposes to reduce the state's greenhouse-gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020. Since California would rank as the 12th-largest emitter of greenhouse gases globally, the plan may signify a turn for the U.S. as a whole.

Schwarzenegger isn't the only politician taking climate change policy into his own hands. A bipartisan group of six U.S. senators recently introduced a revised Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act last week, pledging to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050.

Among the co-sponsors are several potential 2008 presidential candidates, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. Their proposal would put a mandatory cap on industrial emissions, something the president and former Republican Congress have adamantly opposed.

If President Bush does introduce a new climate proposal during his State of the Union speech, despite the White House denial of the British report, Thomas Graedel, a professor of industrial ecology at Yale University, fears it will be ineffective without enforcement.

"The fact that the president may announce a policy change is recognition of something that virtually everyone who's looked at the issue would find perfectly reasonable," Graedel said. "But without a commitment to take strong action through acknowledging the existence of the action really doesn't move us in the direction of doing anything about it."

President Bush addressed the global warming issue last January at his State of the Union address when he acknowledged the U.S. addiction to oil. He proposed the Advanced Energy Initiative as part of the 2007 budget. Congress has yet to vote on it.

According to The Observer, British officials speculate that a meeting in December 2006 between President Bush and Prime Minister Blair was a turning point for U.S. policy on global warming. While the details of the private talks were not released, the president acknowledged that greenhouse-gas emissions were discussed.

"The prime minister has put global climate change on the table," Bush said. "It's an issue that we, where there's been disagreement in the past … there is a consensus that we need to move forward together."

Senior White House officials say they won't discuss the content of the State of the Union address before it's given, but that the British report of a dramatic change simply isn't true.

The officials claim the president has repeatedly acknowledged the earth is warming, and that he's "put good, workable policies and significant scientific research dollars to work to drive technological innovation that will help lift developing nations out of poverty and decrease environmental effects of energy consumption."

Graedel and other supporters of policies to prevent global warming say they hope this year will be different.

"I hope the U.S. will make a major commitment to reducing not only it's rate of increase of greenhouse-gas emissions," Graedel said, "but the absolute amount of emissions."