The education of George W. Bush on global warming is simply summarized: Honesty may not be the best policy. Greenhouse politics have long blended exaggeration and deception. Although global warming may or may not be an inevitable calamity, politicians everywhere treat it as one. Doing otherwise would offend environmental lobbies and the public, which has been conditioned to see it as a certain disaster. But the same politicians won't do anything that would dramatically reduce global warming because the obvious remedy -- steep increases in energy prices -- would be immensely unpopular.
By rejecting the Kyoto protocol, Bush has discarded all the convenient deceits -- and this, paradoxically, is why he is so harshly condemned. He must be discredited because if he's correct, then almost everyone else has been playing fast and loose with the facts.
Bush says that the Kyoto commitments were "arbitrary and not based on science." True. Under Kyoto, the United States would cut its greenhouse gas emissions 7 percent below their 1990 levels by the years 2008 to 2012. Japan's target is 6 percent, the European Union's 8 percent. Developing countries (Brazil, China, India) aren't covered. These targets reflect pragmatic diplomacy and little else.
Because so many countries are excluded, it's also true -- as Bush indicates -- that even if Kyoto worked as planned, the effect on greenhouse gases would be almost trivial. In 1990, says the U.S. Energy Information Administration, global emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, totaled 5.8 billion tons of "carbon equivalent." The EIA predicts that, if nothing is done, emissions will rise 34 percent to 7.8 billion tons by 2010. With Kyoto, the increase would be only 26 percent to 7.3 billion tons. Cuts by industrialized countries would be more than offset by increases from developing countries.
Finally, Bush is correct when he says that reaching the Kyoto target would involve substantial economic costs for Americans. Strong U.S. economic growth has raised emissions well above their 1990 level. To hit the Kyoto target would require a cut of 30 percent or more of projected emissions.
Europeans boast that they've done better, implying that America's poor showing reflects a lack of will. By 1998, the 15 countries of the European Union had reduced greenhouse emissions 2.5 percent below the 1990 level. But the comparison is bogus. Through 1998, only three countries (Germany, Britain and Luxembourg) had reduced emissions, and these improvements were mostly fortunate accidents. The shutdown of inefficient and heavy-polluting factories in eastern Germany cut emissions. And in Britain, plentiful North Sea gas propelled a shift from coal.
The Clinton administration expressed alarm about global warming even while delaying effective action. Under Kyoto, countries can buy "rights" to emit greenhouse gases from other countries where -- in theory -- reductions could be more cheaply achieved. Called "emissions trading," this approach was championed by Clinton. But as David Victor of the Council on Foreign Relations argues, the scheme is a sham. Some countries -- notably Russia and Ukraine -- got emissions targets above their needs. So they could sell their excess emission "rights" to Americans. The result: The United States wouldn't cut its emissions and neither would Russia or Ukraine.
Bush's candor seems more commendable than the simplifications and evasions of his critics. And yet, his policy has stigmatized him as an environmental outlaw and earned him ill will in Europe and Japan. These are high costs. What went wrong? Just this: People say they like honesty in politicians, but on global warming, at least, people prefer delusion. They want to hear that "something" is being done, even though little can be done.
Barring technological breakthroughs -- ways of producing cheap energy with few emissions -- it's hard to deal with global warming. Developing countries sensibly insist on the right to reduce poverty through economic growth, which means more energy use and emissions. Meanwhile, industrialized countries won't reduce emissions if it means reducing living standards. There is a natural stalemate.
Because this message is unwanted, politicians don't deliver it. Someone who defies conventional wisdom needs to explain his view well enough to bring public opinion to his side. Bush has, so far, failed at this critical task. Ironically, he might have fared better politically if he had stuck with Clinton's clever deceptions.
Washington Post Writers Group