In its first major u-turn on a policy issue, the Bush administration has reversed an explicit campaign commitment to set limits on emissions of carbon monoxide - the greenhouse gas which causes global warming. It is a very instructive case study in what interests predominate within the new administration.
Considering the vital importance of the issue and the clearly disproportionate responsibility of the United States for worldwide emissions, it must be described as an outrageous decision with disturbing implications for the United States' international relations.
Mr Bush's campaign pledge was spelled out last September with specific reference to power plants. It enabled him to dull the edge of criticisms from Mr Al Gore and the Green Party candidate, Mr Ralph Nader, both of whom made much of their environmental policies. It has also allowed members of his administration, notably the director of the Environmental Protection Agency, Ms Christine Todd-Whitman, to defend his approach against critics who said he does not take the global warming issue seriously. She had just returned from a tour of Europe this week with this message when she was told of the change of line. It is hard to see how she can honourably stay on in office after such a humiliation.
Mr Bush justifies his decision by saying there is an energy crisis in the US, with reference to the Californian power failures. He believes it is wrong to push up energy prices by insisting on mandatory controls, possibly endangering economic growth in an uncertain period. He has said repeatedly that the US must be more self-sufficient in energy production by opening up drilling in Alaska and other wilderness parks. Oil and coal companies bankrolled his campaign and he is himself from an oil background, as are several prominent members of his administration.
These interests mounted a very effective campaign in recent weeks to reverse the carbon dioxide commitment, combining with prominent Republican conservatives to do so. In his letter to four of them announcing the change of policy, Mr Bush also questions the rapidly growing scientific consensus that such emissions cause global warming. It is the basis for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol limiting them. Talks between the US and the European Union on how to implement those commitments broke down last November at The Hague. After this decision, it is difficult indeed to see how they can make any progress when they resume in May.
Mr Bush's volte-face has been attacked by critics at home and abroad and makes for a grimmer outlook for international agreement on global warming - given that the US, with five per cent of the world's population, produces a quarter of its carbon dioxide emissions. It remains to be seen how this decision affects the US negotiating position. But for many concerned observers it appears to reinforce a worrying trend towards unilateralism in US foreign policy.
© 2001 ireland.com