A climate change of heart
A BELEAGUERED president stubbornly insists on staying the course even as his staunchest allies abandon him. I’m not talking about Iraq, but global warming.
Here’s a case where virtually everybody is acknowledging a weapon of mass destruction -- the threat of climate chaos -- but still President Bush refuses to take action. When the evangelical community, Bush’s stalwart base, called for climate action last month, the news grabbed headlines. But the more important Bush defectors on this issue are some of the world’s largest corporations, including British Petroleum, General Electric, DuPont and Cinergy. So, the question arises: Why does Bush persist in his increasingly lonely stance?
The answer may lie in the difference between realpolitik and ideology. Many corporations initially opposed climate action as a practical matter, because of its perceived costs. The Bush administration’s opposition seems to derive from its ideological hostility to international treaties and the United Nations on the one hand and environmentalists on the other.
One story from 2002 illustrates the different approaches. A former staffer from an anti-climate-action lobbying group, the Global Climate Coalition, had dinner with oil and chemical company bigwigs at the Palm Too restaurant in New York not long after the U.S. negotiating team walked out of the talks on the Kyoto treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“You’d think that this group would have been jumping for joy,” he told me, “but instead, they were sputtering mad because they felt that the move could not have been done in a more politically incompetent way.” The last thing these savvy businessmen wanted was a grand gesture that would galvanize the the world against the U.S. Instead, business groups had hoped for the U.S. to stay inside the negotiations, where they could quietly kill action by a thousand cuts.
That approach had already proved successful. For 17 years, industry-sponsored lobbying groups forestalled action on climate change even as scientific alarm mounted. One prong of the attack was to infiltrate treaty negotiations. The lobbyists not only influenced policy, in some cases they wrote it. In one incident in the 1990s, Don Pearlman, an attorney who represented the Climate Council (another vociferous anti-climate-action group), was escorted from the floor of a Kyoto negotiating session after he was spotted writing positions for the Saudi Arabian delegation.
When they were not writing policy for emerging nations, industry groups were insisting that there was no scientific consensus that climate change was an urgent threat. It was a brilliant tactic. The naysayers didn’t have to disprove global warming; they just had to create the impression that it was still subject to debate. This left the public feeling that there was no need to get excited until the scientists sorted things out.
Two things happened to change corporate attitudes. The destructive power of extreme weather events has become impossible to ignore (for instance, Hurricane Katrina and the 2003 heat wave in Europe that killed nearly 35,000 people). Even to the casual observer, the climate system seems to be popping rivets. And multinational corporations couldn’t afford to be too out of step with their customers and stakeholders, particularly in the many countries where global warming is viewed as a clear and present danger.
Businesses began defecting from the Global Climate Coalition, which closed up shop in 2002 (noting that the Bush administration had adopted its agenda). And some companies changed positions to attempt green branding or because of the threat of sanctions.
In other cases, however, change came about simply because there was a new boss. That seems to have been the case with General Electric, the ninth-largest corporation in the world. Chief Executive Jack Welch was vocal in his opposition to taking action on climate change, and according to those close to the situation, in 1997 he forced the head of Employers Re, a GE insurance subsidiary, to abandon a plan to join a public/private environmental and climate initiative put together by the U.N. Environment Program. Now, however, under Jeffrey Immelt, GE trumpets the very type of initiatives that Welch squashed.
The changed corporate landscape gives hope until we remember that the climate seems to be changing the landscape that we live on even more rapidly. With carbon dioxide levels already higher than they’ve been since homo sapiens emerged as a species, we are conducting a science lab experiment on a planetary scale.
India, China and other big greenhouse gas emitters will not do their part unless the United States, the biggest emitter, joins the effort. And that won’t happen without presidential leadership. So, President Bush, if the scientific, evangelical and business communities can’t sway you, what will it take to persuade you to help halt our lunatic meddling with Earth’s atmosphere?