WASHINGTON, Dec. 4 (UPI) -- The Bush administration estimates its final recommendations on the climate change debate will likely come within five years, a time frame that critics say would allow the president to avoid scrutiny on the controversial environmental policy during his 2004 re-election campaign.
The United States and international science leaders met in Washington this week for a three-day long conference to review a draft plan for two to four years of additional U.S. research into the global warming and climate change phenomenon. Officials insist the research is necessary to make the right policy decisions administration.
But critics say the prolonged study of the issue is the administration's way of avoiding holding oil companies, refineries and utility plants accountable for their greenhouse gas emissions. They point to the multi-year window for additional research as a way of pushing the issue out of the public spotlight until after Bush's 2004 re-election bid and possibly into the following midterm congressional races.
Within his first six months in office, Bush pulled out of international global climate change talks and reversed his campaign vow to reduce carbon emissions. The departure from the Kyoto Protocol for Climate Change treaty negotiations drew sharp criticism from the international community, which ratified the pact without U.S. support or participation.
Groups tracking how the United States and other nations deal with climate change issues say that enough science is available to allow the administration to begin making an effort at making substantive changes in its policies. They said that continued investment in research is a problem.
Critics call the administration's approach "paralysis by analysis" and said the summit was being touted as the next step in its plan to address climate change. "They're trying to sell the conference as some sort of action," said an official with a nonprofit climate change group who asked not to be identified.
It would not be the first time the Bush White House has choreographed a major conference or summit in an effort to redirect awareness on a particular issue. In the past six months, the administration has staged conferences on corporate fraud, minority homeownership, child protection -- all of which drew media attention but which resulted in little substantive action on the issues covered.
Scott McClellan, deputy White House press secretary, told United Press International that the United States has spent an unprecedented amount of money, $4 billion annually, on climate change research and activities.
"No other nation has matched that," McClellan said. Bush has called for an 18 percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions and has urged the development and use of clean energy technologies, McClellan said.
While the Bush administration has pumped a considerable amount of cash into the climate change debate, the Center for Responsive Politics reports that oil, gas, coal and electric utility companies contributed a more than $37 million during the 2002 election cycle. They contributed some $27.2 million to the Republican Party and $9.7 million to the Democrats.
Benjamin Prescott, senior research fellow with the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, told UPI that additional research is necessary, but that the administration has taken existing programs and policies and are "dressing them up" as new initiatives.
"They've shuffled titles and initiatives and called it a new program," Prescott said.
Many of the scientists participating in the three-day effort did take the opportunity at face value, making suggestions to refocus the proposed research in a number of ways including more study of the interaction of the sort of pollution that causes the haze over cities and other emissions that are widely accepted as causing global warming. Other suggestions included a more specific look at what happens in smaller regions of the world not just grand swaths of the planet.
Even so, some scientists voiced concern at the delay in taking action. Addressing a session on emerging science issues, Warren Washington, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and Chair of the National Science Board, said no level of emissions was safe.
Washington told UPI that one of the questions being discussed was whether certain levels of greenhouse gases might be safe -- with the implication that levels like 550 or 750 parts per million will be reached at some point.
It would be great if you could wait until then, said Washington, "but my point is that when you put a molecule of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere it stays there for 90 years to 100 years." In his personal opinion, he said "we should start doing something now. ... I feel we should get started even though we don't have all the answers at this point."
Part of what is driving the administration approach is anxiety over the economic implications. Top administration officials told reporters at briefing last week that economic analysis would be very much a part of the research plan. Developing new technologies to solve the problem was consistently pointed to at this week's meeting as key to solving the problem.
U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham told the scientists during a speech delivered late Tuesday afternoon that Bush made climate change a priority but the challenge was to develop a program that accomplished its goals.
"The best way to slow and halt greenhouse gas (emissions) is with emerging technologies," Abraham said.
Prescott called Abraham's speech "tragic."
"He was trying to convince a roomful of scientists that the administration's position was sufficient to address this problem," Prescott said. "But everyone in the room knew better. It was a much more savvy audience than he expected."
Abraham maintained that any solution should take U.S. economic growth into consideration and a "draconian" approach to the problem would have drastic economic repercussions. The White House said the Kyoto treaty would have put some 4.9 million Americans out of work.
"I roll my eyes when I hear we can't address climate change without crippling the economy," said Prescott.
Prescott said reasonable steps could be taken to regulate emissions that would become more stringent overtime. He agreed that government would have to be careful about implementing new regulations, but said it could be done without shocking the economy.
Frank Maisano, an industry consultant, said climate change continues to be a changing science and that more could be learned about its effects. He said Kyoto was not the right approach and that industry is voluntarily taking a more serious action on the problem of emissions.
"There is always going to be that group that says we need to take dramatic action right now," Maisano said. But the slower approach may be better, he said. Technology should be allowed to "make the strides it needs to make."
Maisano said environmental groups would use the climate change issue as a fundraising tool with clever catch phrases, but will never address energy technology
"Some people will look at this on a political timeline," said Maisano, who is also the former spokesman for the now defunct Global Climate Coalition, a group that represented more than 6 million businesses in agriculture and forestry and including electric utilities, railroads, transportation, manufacturing, mining, oil, and coal.
(With additional reporting by Dee Ann Divis)