The federal government sent a report to the United Nations Friday admitting what every other important institution in the world has long insisted: that global warming will wreak massive damage on every corner of the planet.
On this continent, the Bush administration concluded, entire ecosystems would likely disappear, while heat waves stifled the plains and cities, and disappearing snow packs left the West Coast dry and thirsty. Sea levels would rise quickly, threatening low-lying and storm-raked areas like Long Island. In the mountains of New York and New England, winter would disappear and the forests that make the fall spectacular would wither.
In other words, all the horrors that environmentalists have been warning about for 15 years, and that conservatives and energy lobbyists and bought-off members of Congress have been pooh-poohing, really are true. It's like the Vatican finally admitting that, oops, Galileo was right after all. The change was so blatant that conservatives demanded a retraction and President George W. Bush Tuesday blamed the report on "the bureauracy." Still, it's all there in black and white.
But before you celebrate, read the report carefully. If you do, you'll realize that in fact it's at least as cynical as the denial of reality it replaces. Now, instead of pretending that climate change is an insignificant and unproved irritant, the administration insists that it is so enormous that very little can be done about it, except build seawalls.
This week, the last of the European Union nations and Japan ratified the Kyoto accords and accepted their mandate to reduce fossil-fuel use. The United States, however, is offering nothing. The report repeats Bush's lame plan for voluntary reductions in "greenhouse gas intensity" - that is, coal and oil burned per dollar of gross domestic product - but resists any pledge to actually cut our emissions.
In fact, the most startling figure in the report has nothing to do with snowfall or sea level. Instead, it's the official government prediction that U.S. production of greenhouse gases will rise 43 percent by 2020. We'll pour half again as much carbon dioxide into the planet's atmosphere 18 years from now - that's our promise.
It's as if a drunk had finally hit bottom, announced to friends and family that he accepted the fact that he was an alcoholic and that it was destroying his life - and then said that his plan was to drink three bottles a night from now on instead of two, and see if maybe he could find an artificial kidney.
In Bush's case, though, the new stance has an impeccable internal logic. It allows him to abandon a crumbling redoubt - since virtually every scientist now accepts the reality of climate change, his denials were starting to make him sound like someone communicating with aliens through his braces.
But at the same time it relieves him of the obligation to actually do anything about it, thereby ensuring the continued affection of his home base, the energy industry. In a blink they've gone from arguing that there's no reason to raise mileage standards because global warming is unproven to arguing that there's no reason to do it because the problem is so huge that any action would accomplish next to nothing. As "a senior administration official" explained to reporters, "policies on emissions or international treaties" would not change as a result of the new admissions.
In the long run, this new position will crumble too. The anger and fear of Americans about the consequences of unchecked climate change will eventually give some politicians enough spine to tackle the problem, which so far they have made a bipartisan effort to ignore. And the rest of the world simply won't stand for it - the damage inflicted by our CO2 doesn't end at our borders, though the administration's report to the United Nations concerns only our wetlands, forests and farm fields.
We pour a quarter of the world's greenhouse gases into the atmosphere already, and with each year that passes our stance makes everyone else angrier. Among average Europeans, our hypocrisy on climate change undermines our image more than anything we've done since the end of the war in Vietnam.
But Bush clearly doesn't care about the long run. His spokesmen said last month that the United States might take another look at the Kyoto accords in ...2012. By which time he'll be back on the ranch, having successfully secured another eight years of business as usual for the interests that brought him to power.
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