Climate: CO2 policy, Bush-Cheney style

By DAN WHIPPLE, United Press International  |  Feb. 9, 2004 at 5:34 PM
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A weekly UPI series examining the policies surrounding and possible human impact on global climate change.


BOULDER, Colo., Feb. 9 (UPI) -- President George W. Bush reversed his campaign position on global climate change after taking office. This shift was a result primarily because pro-oil and pro-gas production interests with the administration pushed for it, according to former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill in the recent book "The Price of Loyalty," by Ron Suskind.

Much of the controversy about the book has centered on the Bush budget and tax policies when O'Neill was at Treasury, but a substantial portion also offers insight into the formation of the president's attitudes toward climate change and the environment.

The climate change issue was a major contributor to the resignation of former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman, which seemed to be orchestrated by Vice President Richard Cheney, O'Neill wrote.

O'Neill retained about 19,000 files from his service in the Bush administration, and author Suskind has taken the unusual step of posting some of them on the Internet, with the promise of more to come. Among the first documents are some pertaining to the Bush climate change policy and how it evolved between the campaign and the eventual U.S. withdrawal from the Kyoto climate change agreement.

Despite administration rhetoric about making decisions based on sound science, as O'Neill told Suskind, science had little to do with it.

Because his 2000 presidential opponent, Vice President Al Gore, had staked out global warming as a key issue, Bush asserted during presidential debates that "global warming needs to be taken very seriously."

According to Suskind: "Bush's proposed energy policy, issued shortly before the debates, proposed mandatory reduction targets for 'four main pollutants: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury and carbon dioxide.' Conservatives and energy executives were outraged. The Oil and Gas Journal declared that 'regulation of CO2 as an air pollutant is a bad idea that belongs on the outer fringes of environmental extremism.'"

Once in office, Bush at first seemed to have no policy at all on climate change. Preparing for an international meeting in Trieste, Italy, on the issue, Whitman got agreement from Bush aides to list carbon dioxide as a "toxic substance," which would allow the United States -- the world's biggest CO2 producer -- to regulate it. While the policy sounded firm, Whitman's discussions with the administration "were mostly her blind stabs at deducing the mind of the president," Suskind wrote.

O'Neill also tried to come up with a position on climate change and Kyoto, Suskind noted, that would consider the scientific evidence "to attempt to find single set of blended, shared facts" rather than an array of competing sets that gridlock debate.

A letter then was sent from four Republican senators -- Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Larry Craig of Idaho, Jesse Helms of North Carolina, and Pat Roberts of Kansas. The letter, a copy of which is on the Suskind Web site, asked for "clarification of your administration's policy on climate change ... we need to have a clear understanding of your administration's position on climate change, in particular the Kyoto Protocol, and the regulation of carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act."

Whitman viewed this as frontal assault on her attempts to regulate CO2. O'Neill thought this was an area where science and fact could generate rational policy.

"The Hagel letter looked suspicious to both of them," Suskind wrote. "The timing, the tone, the emphasis on the senator's desire to work with the administration on a 'comprehensive national energy strategy,' with all the environmental issues as a subordinate clause beneath the dictates of energy and economics."

O'Neill saw Cheney at work. It is Cheney's style, O'Neill said, to "quietly select an issue, counsel various participants, manufacture the exchange of seemingly impromptu letters or reports ... and then guide unfolding events toward the intended outcome."

Whitman got an appointment with the president where she didn't even get a chance to make her case.

"Christie, I've already made my decision," the president was quoted as saying.

Bush added he would oppose Kyoto because it "was an unfair and ineffective means of addressing global climate change concerns."

This reversal of Bush's campaign position went further than anyone expected -- probably further even than the senators expected him to go.

"Energy production is all that matters," Whitman said, according to O'Neill. "He couldn't have been clearer."

O'Neill's conclusion was the entire affair had been orchestrated by Cheney.

"The Cheney M.O., start to finish," Suskind wrote.

"A decade of dialogue about the evidence of climate change and responsible international response was shattered, along with the hard work to find a middle ground between economic progress and environmental good sense -- a conversation that had been progressing with sound results since Nixon created EPA," Suskind continued.

In the O'Neill version of events, the Bush reversal on climate and Kyoto was devoid of scientific input. The science policy advisory group that O'Neill and Whitman wanted to create to establish the factual baseline on global warming was never created, and the abandonment of Kyoto was made without substantive scientific input.


The Suskind postings appear at


Dan Whipple covers the environment for UPI Science News. E-mail

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