Psst! Dubya! Clinton Didn’t Do Anything About Global Warming, Either!

Predicting catastrophe and leaving it at that is long-standing U.S. policy.

“I read the report put out by the bureaucracy,” sneered President Bush yesterday when asked about the Environmental Protection Agency’s new Climate Action Report 2002, which made headlines earlier this week for concluding that while human activities were likely the main cause of global warming, not much could be done to curb them now. It’s clear to Chatterbox, though, that Bush did not read Chapter 4. If he had, he would know that the Clinton administration did little more than Bush to counter global warming. Indeed, wringing one’s hands over the coming global catastrophe and then proposing no significant policies to help prevent it has been unofficial U.S. policy for nearly a decade.

Chatterbox can pinpoint the date when it became clear that the previous administration had given up trying to do anything about global warming. It was June 15, 1993—less than six months after Bill Clinton and his environmentally conscious vice president, Al Gore, took office. Clinton had already tried and failed to get a BTU tax, based on the heat content of fuel, through a still-Democratic Congress. (The BTU tax was and remains the most effective measure the U.S. government could adopt to combat global warming.) In an April 21 Earth Day speech, Clinton had pledged to reduce U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. On June 15, Chatterbox, then a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, sat down for an interview with Susan Tierney, the Energy Department’s assistant secretary for policy. Tierney, an important member of an interagency group that was figuring out how to meet Clinton’s pledge, said that this group was considering the option of allowing U.S. companies to count as reductions of “U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions” carbon and other greenhouse gases spouted by their factories overseas. Although reducing overseas emissions was in many respects smart environmental policy—they were much “dirtier” than plants at home—counting these emissions toward the fulfillment of Clinton’s domestic pledge revealed that pledge to be an empty one. When the decade ended, domestic U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions were about 12 percent above 1990 levels.

Chapter 4 of the EPA’s new Climate Action Report demonstrates that for the Clinton administration, as for the current Bush administration, the watchwords for global-warming policy were “voluntary” and “partnership.” The only real differences were rhetorical. Clinton and, especially, Gore stated forthrightly that human activity was raising the earth’s temperature. Bush has not, though in September 2000 his presidential campaign, probably at the urging of Enron’s Kenneth Lay, briefly outflanked Gore by calling for a limit on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. (He reneged six months later.) Clinton and Gore favored ratification of the Kyoto Treaty. Bush never did. But Clinton never spent a dime of political capital trying to ram the Kyoto Treaty through an unfriendly Republican Congress.

Chatterbox mentions all this not to enable the Bush administration’s inaction, but rather to demonstrate that a more assertive policy on global warming would achieve for Bush something infinitely more satisfying than saving the planet. It would make Clinton—and the Democrats—look stupid.That should be no small benefit to a president whose own intelligence has frequently been called into question.

[Clarification, 1:35 p.m.: Even the rhetorical differences between Clinton and Bush are not as great as Chatterbox thought. At a White House press briefing, Ari Fleischer pointed out today that on June 11 of last year, President Bush made the following statement: “Concentration of greenhouse gases, especially C02, have increased substantially since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. And the National Academy of Sciences indicate that the increase is due in large part to human activity.” (You can read Bush’s speech by clicking here. You can read the National Academy of Sciences report by clicking here.) What Fleischer didn’t point out was that Bush immediately backpedaled: “Yet, the Academy’s report tells us that we do not know how much effect natural fluctuations in climate may have had on warming. We do not know how much our climate could, or will change in the future. We do not know how fast change will occur, or even how some of our actions could impact it.” So while Chatterbox is correct in stating that Bush has not stated forthrightly that human activity is raising the earth’s temperature, let the record show that Bush has stated it in a mealy-mouthed way.]