The Bush administration's understanding of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate change recalls the grasp of a none-too-bright chemistry student who, when told that oxygen was discovered in 1774, wondered what people breathed before that.
Even a firm Supreme Court ruling, holding that the 44-year-old Clean Air Act does apply to pollutants that weren't considered harmful when the law was written, hasn't altered President Bush's willful misunderstanding of the threat and the things that need to be done to face it.
Reacting to Monday's court ruling, the president still said he sees no need for the Environmental Protection Agency to take the kind of actions that, the court ruled, the EPA has been illegally shirking.
With Massachusetts leading the way, a consortium of 12 states (including New York) and 13 environmental groups argued that the 1963 Clean Air Act says that the EPA "shall" set standards for a variety of airborne pollutants that do, or are reasonably feared to, endanger public health and safety. The fact that the law doesn't specifically mention CO2 does not, argued the plaintiffs, mean that those substances need not be regulated. The court agreed, and ordered that the EPA either start doing its job of limiting carbon emissions, specifically from motor vehicles, or come up with a more rational, scientifically based reason why.
That didn't stop the president from sticking by some of his old arguments, including at least one other that the court also properly rejected as fatally flawed. Bush said Tuesday that it would be pointless for the United States to limit carbon emissions when there is every expectation that those emissions will continue to grow worldwide, particularly as China and India continue their economic booms. Even if the president's math is correct, his logic falls short.
Less CO2 emission in the United States -- and, according to their plans, in the European Union -- will mean less CO2 in the atmosphere than would otherwise have been there, no matter what happens in Asia.
Whether the net result is an overall decrease in greenhouse gases -- admittedly not too likely in the short term, or just levels that are significantly lower than what they would have been if the United States hadn't acted -- action is not only justified by logic, it is still mandated by U.S. law. As Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, most government regulations only serve to retard threats to public safety, not end them "in one fell swoop."
It would have been injudicious of the justice to point out that the EPA's foot-dragging is at least as likely to be caused by its loyality to the auto and other polluting industries than by simple ignorance.
Odds are that the EPA's obstinacy will survive as long as this administration does. But the court's correct ruling should serve as an incentive for Congress, the states, responsible industry -- and the next president -- to start enforcing what must now been seen as an unusually forward-looking law.