President G. W. Bush has moved quickly and decisively to burn his initials onto the most serious environmental issue the world has ever faced. He has made it clear for all to see that unless he dramatically reverses course, it's going to be "G" for global, "W" for warming, Bush from now on.
First the President reneges on a campaign promise to curb carbon dioxide emissions-the main cause of climate change. Then he threatens to pull the U.S. out of the global treaty negotiated in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, arousing the ire not only of U.S. environmentalists, but fury from our allies in Europe and Japan.
Most of the world's governments, some large corporations, for example, Alcoa and DuPont, and even members of Bush's own administration, such Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, have recognized that climate change is a serious concern.
In fact, Whitman urged the President to keep his promises and "appear engaged" on the climate issue. She "strongly recommended" to him in a March memo "that you continue to recognize that global warming is a real and serious issue."
But Bush left Whitman twisting in global warming's winds, and seems to have taken the advice of his buddies (Vice President Cheney included) from the oil industry. In announcing his decision on carbon dioxide emissions, Bush said that the "scientific knowledge of the causes of, and solutions to, global climate change" is "incomplete."
Bush also said that carbon dioxide emissions from power plants are not officially classified as "pollutants." But this is just a smoke screen. Carbon dioxide emissions account for 64 percent of global-warming gases. A full 75 percent of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions come from burning oil, gas and coal, this according to a February report by a U.N. panel of the world's top climate scientists and experts.
What is the anticipated impact of carbon dioxide's pollution of the atmosphere? According to the U.N. panel, if it is not halted, climate change will probably result in increased frequency and severity of storms, floods and drought. And it will cause the spread of diseases, such as malaria. It will increase hunger and bring about displacement and mass migrations of people with ensuing social conflict.
Global warming is starting to make itself felt. The 1990s was the warmest decade and 1998 was the warmest year on record. The icecap atop Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa is melting away and will completely disappear in less than 15 years, scientists predict.
Bush argues that the "we must be very careful not to take actions that could harm consumers." Yet he's setting us all up to pay a huge price in the future. This is especially true for the poor. According to the U.N. panel, people who are highly dependent on farming, fishing or forestry are most likely to see their livelihoods destroyed by climate change. Meanwhile, the urban poor -- disproportionately people of color -- will be most vulnerable to climate-change related heat waves, diseases and respiratory ailments.
Bush seems less concerned about saving consumers money and more concerned with using the fear of high electricity bills to pry open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This will make money for Bush's oil industry pals. It will also increase US carbon dioxide emissions.
The US, with 5 percent of the Earth's population, already produces one-quarter of the world's man-made carbon dioxide. Increasing carbon emissions, and therefore the US contribution to climate change, is obviously not a very popular move with our neighbors on this planet. Deciding to bail out of the Kyoto Protocol however, places the US firmly on the road to becoming the world's number one environmental rogue state.
Bush's ideologically driven policy may well sink the Kyoto Protocol. But there is a move afoot among European governments to challenge the US. ''This isn't some marginal environmental issue that can be ignored or played down,'' said European Union Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstroem ''It has to do with trade and economics.'' There is talk in European capitals of building a coalition among Europe, Japan and Russia to implement the Kyoto accord without the US.
This potential geopolitical fracture should make it clear to even the staunchest right-wingers in the Bush administration that it is in their interest to curb carbon emissions and support the Kyoto Protocol. Rather than aid the oil industry, Bush should not drill in the Arctic Refuge. And he should invest our country's resources in energy efficiency and renewable energy resources, such as solar, wind and biomass.
Time is of the essence. And G.W. Bush will have to reverse course soon unless he wants to go down in history as the global warming president.
Joshua Karliner is executive director of CorpWatch.