A Pressured Bush Retreats

Six months ago, presidential candidate George W. Bush promised to improve the nation's air quality and ease the threat of global warming by setting "mandatory reduction targets" for carbon dioxide. President Bush now has abandoned that promise. It was a "mistake," says a White House spokesman, for Bush to have described carbon dioxide as a pollutant in need of regulation. Actually, the mistake Bush made came this week when he caved in to the coal industry and other big campaign contributors.

The president said he won't seek to mandate reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide from power plants. Among the major producers of carbon dioxide are coal-fired plants that account for more than half of the nation's electricity output.

In a letter to some members of Congress, Bush contended that he reached his decision in the best interests of consumers, since regulating carbon dioxide emissions could raise energy costs. He also assured conservatives worried about his apparent readiness to adopt a regulatory approach they abhor that he doesn't buy the argument that global climate change is necessarily related to the amount of carbon pumped into the atmosphere. On this matter, the White House says, more study is needed. That claim is simply disingenuous. An insistence on more study is one of those hoary devices--like naming a presidential commission that won't issue a report for a year or two--commonly used to avoid a controversial decision.

Bush's retreat probably kills pending efforts in Congress to get carbon dioxide listed as a pollutant in need of regulation. Certainly it is a blow to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman, who unlike her boss seems convinced by the scientific evidence that man-made carbon dioxide does contribute significantly to global warming. What science indicates is that carbon dioxide emissions, created when fossil fuels are burned, play a large role in the greenhouse effect that keeps more of the sun's heat trapped in the atmosphere. The result is believed to be a gradual rise in temperatures and an increase in the threat of potentially catastrophic climatic changes.

It's no doubt true that capping emissions from power plants would mean some increase in electricity prices. Technological fixes aren't free. But they certainly can be cost-effective in improving the quality of life. Cleaning up tailpipe emissions, which was bitterly resisted by the auto industry, has dramatically improved the nation's air quality. The overwhelming majority of Americans, as polls consistently show, are willing to pay a bit more for cleaner air and safer water.

Not surprisingly, the charge against carbon dioxide regulation was led by businesses that are large coal consumers and that were major contributors to Bush's campaign. Likewise no surprise, it was those in Congress most bitterly opposed to the still unratified 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which would commit the United States and other industrialized countries to major cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, who pressured Bush to back down. That leaves the United States, the world's largest consumer of fossil fuels, in the indefensible position of being committed to nothing more tangible than continued study of the global warming threat.

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