Friday, April 18, 2008

thoughts on bush’s climate change goals and speech

So after seven years in the White House, President Bush has finally proposed a plan to mitigate climate change and curb our greenhouse gas emissions. See here. Unfortunately, the President’s approach and justifications leave much to be desired, and seem more like leaving the problem to future administrations, and leaving us with the impression that his Administration made a (positive) difference.

One of the most startling/puzzling/frustrating things about the speech is that it makes the U.S. out to be the leader on climate change, when in fact we are the laggard. Bush’s speech has an air to it that the rest of the world hasn’t been addressing climate change correctly, and that our way is the solution. This is pretty ridiculous considering that we have failed to regulate CO2 emissions, join the Kyoto Protocol or any other number of actions the rest of the world has undertaken.

It should be noted that the Kyoto Protocol isn’t perfect, and I partly agree with Bush’s assessment that it does not address India and China, but waiting for over a decade to impose regulations (well, even admit that CO2 is a problem) is irresponsible.
What’s most disappointing in the speech is the President’s view of the authority and regulations that are in place and how they should be applied to climate change. Take his stance on the Clean Air Act for example:

As we approach this challenge, we face a growing problem here at home. Some courts are taking laws written more than 30 years ago — to primarily address local and regional environmental effects — and applying them to global climate change. The Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act were never meant to regulate global climate.

It’s a shame that laws designed to protect the environment can’t be applied to a problem that affects the environment (sarcasm).

For example, under a Supreme Court decision last year, the Clean Air Act could be applied to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. This would automatically trigger regulation under the Clean Air Act of greenhouse gases all across our economy — leading to what Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell last week called, “a glorious mess.”

Keep in mind that Representative Dingell is from Michigan’s 15th district, which is the heart of American auto manufacturing (Detroit, Dearborn etc…). Of course he would oppose any regulation on GHG emissions on vehicles.

It’s interesting to hear Bush talk about limiting the role of government in terms of the environment, when everything else his Administration has done has increased the role of government in our lives. Not quite the conservative platform.

But for good measure, we get a little scare tactic of the cost of the environment vs. our economy. Surely we don’t want to raise taxes or curb economic growth (which seems to be the only way we measure economic success, for some reason).

The wrong way is to raise taxes, duplicate mandates, or demand sudden and drastic emissions cuts that have no chance of being realized and every chance of hurting our economy. The right way is to set realistic goals for reducing emissions consistent with advances in technology, while increasing our energy security and ensuring our economy can continue to prosper and grow.

The idea is not to cripple the U.S. economy (we’re doing a great job at that through other practices), but to set the rules of the road so industry can adapt their businesses. No power generator wants to install emission capture equipment without knowing exactly what their competitors have to do. Government must step in and set CO2 limits.

But to keep all of this in perspective, Bush’s plan might be a pretty realistic assessment of what the U.S. will have to do to reduce emissions. This is not necessarily a good thing, because I think it implies/reinforces the idea that the U.S. is lazy. While setting goals of capping emissions by 2025 seems far off, it might be the only practical solution, or at least the most reasonable.
David Victor, head of Stanford’s program on energy and sustainable and development spearheads this idea:

That is a pessimistic assessment, but it may be realistic. Look, for example, at the E.U. where, after getting all the credit for the unification of Germany and for the shift to gas in the U.K. (all of which lowered emissions), total E.U. emissions are now, once again, inching back up. I am sure that the Bush goal is achievable; a more aggressive goal is probably also achievable, but at higher cost. My sense is that a more aggressive goal would be worth that cost; I don’t know if the American people are yet prepared to pay for it.

Maybe it’s a case of better late than never, but it’s insulting to hear President Bush urging action on climate change when the rest of the world has been waiting on us to act. As with other real problems, this Administration is leaving this up to the next one to deal with.

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