The obvious conclusion to be drawn from President Bush's latest global warming strategy, unveiled this week, is that he does not regard warming as a problem. There seems no other way to interpret a policy that would actually increase the gases responsible for heating the earth's atmosphere. That the policy demands little from the American people, while insulting allies who have agreed to take tough steps to deal with the problem, only adds to one's sense of dismay.
The White House described Mr. Bush's strategy as aggressive and bold. The only thing bold about it are accounting tactics worthy of Enron that are designed to make an increase in emissions look like a decrease.
The plan is voluntary and consists mainly of tax credits and other incentives to encourage Americans to limit emissions. There is nothing wrong with voluntary measures or with the credits. Several American companies have already reduced emissions on their own, partly for environmental reasons and partly because the efficiencies required to achieve reductions make economic sense.
But these piecemeal efforts have been undertaken largely in the expectation that at some point the United States would join in a collective attack on the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which mainstream scientists now agree could trigger unwelcome changes in the earth's climate. Mr. Bush has refused to join that effort, abandoning his campaign pledge to limit carbon emissions and renouncing the 1997 Kyoto Protocol committing industrialized nations to mandatory reductions of carbon and other greenhouse gases.
Mr. Bush's long-awaited substitute for Kyoto is a disappointment. The essence of his strategy is a concept that seems to have been minted for the occasion, called "emissions intensity," under which carbon dioxide pollution would be allowed to grow, but at a slower rate than economic output. That sounds attractive, but it misses the point. The buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, already alarmingly high, is a cumulative process. Thus the name of the game is to stop adding new emissions to the vast amounts already up there, not simply to slow their growth.
Yet that is all Mr. Bush is proposing to do, meanwhile dressing up his meager agenda with some squirrely math. He first posits an increase in emissions that is higher and more rapid than the forecasts of his own Energy Department. Then, from this "business-as-usual" baseline, he promises reductions of 18 percent in the next 10 years. By his own figures, however, actual emissions — the ones that count — could rise by 14 percent, which is exactly the rate at which they have been rising for the last 10 years.
Mr. Bush's speech also included proposals aimed at reducing three other pollutants largely unrelated to global warming: mercury, sulfur dioxide — the main cause of acid rain — and nitrogen oxides, which contribute to urban smog. The president called for stronger, mandatory caps on all three pollutants and for market-based mechanisms like emissions trading to help companies meet those targets. Mr. Bush would substitute this "cap and trade" approach for the complex system of regulations that now govern clean air enforcement.
In principle, these are fine ideas. But before disposing of the existing regulatory structure, Congress must be fully satisfied that the president's proposals will in fact achieve the sizable reductions he and his senior associates say they will. We cannot abandon existing law for a promise. Meanwhile, Congress is obliged to do something, and soon, to develop a credible national strategy on global warming. On this score Mr. Bush has fallen well short of the mark.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company