IF President Bush had unveiled his goals for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions at the beginning of his administration instead of in its waning months, he might have actually played a role in linking the United States to global efforts to curb climate change. But the proposals he made yesterday, which in 2001 could have been a starting point for negotiations with advocates of stronger action in Congress, are now too belated and too weak to be more than a historical footnote. All three remaining presidential candidates are committed to much more stringent, mandatory reductions in carbon dioxide.
Bush's plan would allow emissions to increase until 2025 and provides no specifics on how they would be limited after that. Bush rules out new taxes on gasoline pur chases or carbon emissions, but his aides said his plan would allow cap and trade rules, in which an industry-wide limit is set on emissions by utilities. Utilities that can't meet it must buy carbon credits from cleaner generators.
The challenge in cap and trade is setting a cap that forces utilities to use less coal, the fuel that emits the most carbon dioxide but also produces half of all US electricity. Bush would let utilities' emissions increase for as long as 15 years, raising the risk of droughts, floods, and increased insect-borne diseases due to global warming. He specifically opposes a tougher Senate plan.
Bush deplored the possibility that recent court decisions will force the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department to take aggressive steps against greenhouse gas emissions. But courts would not be forcing the agencies to act if Bush had ever pushed Congress for action on global warming. His complaint now calls to mind the old joke about the child who kills his parents and then seeks clemency because he is an orphan.
The president said the United States should make any congressional action on climate change dependent on comparable measures by China, India, and other fast-growing countries. While it is true that preventing the worst effects of global warming will require steps by those countries, it will first require leadership by the United States.
This country is a world leader in both total emissions of greenhouse gases and emissions per capita. It is long past time for it to set an example by taking the problem seriously and, at the same time, developing the new green industries that will be part of the solution. Yesterday's proposal falls far short. The president who makes the United States a world player in combating global warming will be Hillary Clinton, John McCain, or Barack Obama - not George Bush.