Respond to this Article September 2004

W. Takes on Global Warming

By Gregg Easterbrook

Second-term presidents traditionally turn their thoughts to history. Of the two most recently reelected presidents, Ronald Reagan in his second term became interested in nuclear-arms reduction treaties with the Soviet Union, in part because they could make him a historic president; Bill Clinton's thoughts of history were postponed by the Monica mess but, by his final year in office, he was trying desperately to solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. If George W. Bush is reelected, how future historians remember him may become a White House concern. There remains a chance that history will come to regard the invasion of Iraq as a liberation and a progressive turning point in Arab society, but the odds are greater the invasion will be pronounced a colossal folly. A reelected Bush, if he wants to win favor with historians, will have to do something impressive, statesmanlike, and out of character.

Which is why I think a second-term Bush will be the president who imposes global-warming controls.

The scientific case for concern over an artificial greenhouse effect becomes stronger every year. To cite one of many indicators, a few months ago Thomas Karl, director of the federal National Climatic Data Center and once a leading greenhouse skeptic, declared that "anthropogenic climate change is now likely," with impacts "quite disruptive" to agriculture and global economics. Of all nations, only Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Slovenia have meaningful greenhouse-gas reduction standards, and even if these prove successful, the aggregate mass of the nations imposing them is not sufficient to have more than a negligible impact on the overall problem. The United States is both the number-one source of artificially generated greenhouse gases, and the number-one source of economic and technological change--meaning we are both most responsible for the problem, and the most likely to solve it. The sooner the United States puts its shoulder against the global warming threat, the better for the world.

Now consider where George W. Bush will stand in a second term. As a Republican, he is expected to be opposed to environmental regulations. (Actually the EPA was founded under Richard Nixon, the Clean Air Act was made much stronger under George H. W. Bush in 1990, and George W. Bush has strengthened rules to reduce smog, but that's another issue.) Bush's natural constituency is the petroleum industry, so he would be expected not to regulate his oil pals. (Petroleum products are the second-leading cause of artificial greenhouse gases, coal the first.) Whichever U.S. president imposes the initial round of greenhouse reforms will be admired by historians. If a Republican oil-industry president is the first to do this, playing against type, historians may be deeply impressed.

There's your opening, second-term George W. Bush. Be the man who is not afraid to face the threat of global warming.

Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly and The Atlantic Monthly, a senior editor of The New Republic, a visiting fellow of the Brookings Institution, and author, most recently, of The Progress Paradox.


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