WASHINGTON — By taking a largely voluntary approach to global warming, President Bush is walking a fine line between acceptance and skepticism regarding what scientists consider one of the world's most profound environmental challenges.
The administration would clearly like to improve its standing on one key domestic issue - public doubts about its commitment to environmental protection - while signaling to most of the rest of the world that Washington is not turning its back on a major international concern.
Yet its plan to pursue voluntary rather than mandatory reductions of carbon dioxide emissions linked to global warming may not completely accomplish either.
True, the administration yesterday did also unveil mandatory restrictions on three other kinds of pollutants from power plants to go along with its global warming initiative. And its rationale for taking a more hands-off approach in dealing with global warming - because it would help insure a vibrant US economy - will likely play well with a broad section of the American public at a time of economic weakness.
Yet the Europeans and many other industrialized nations, already upset with the US for withdrawing from the Kyoto Treaty on global-climate change last fall, will not be fully satisfied. It will likely reinforce the belief abroad that the US is a "lone cowboy" when it comes to international treaties. The move too, not surprisingly, is bringing loud complaints from the US environmental community.
In his plan on greenhouse gases, Mr. Bush outlined measures that would encourage power plants to slow the growth of CO2 emissions - considered a major contributor to global warming - but not require reductions. That stands in contrast to the Kyoto Protocol, approved but not yet ratified by all other industrialized countries, which would both mandate change and require cuts.
The White House argues that the reductions required under the Kyoto would impair the American economy. Complying with treaty, the administration says, could reduce the nation's gross domestic product by up to 4 percent in 2010.
That is why the president's plan is voluntary and links CO2 emission goals to economic growth. The stronger the economy grows, the higher the goals. "This new approach is based on the common-sense idea that sustainable economic growth is the key to environmental progress - because it is growth that provides the resources for investment in clean technologies," the president said.
By the administration's estimate, reporting of CO2 emissions, voluntary reductions, along with industry incentives and investment in clean technology, will curb more than 500 million metric tons in future greenhouse gas emissions - the equivalent of taking nearly one of every three cars off the road. John Reilly, a climate expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., calls the administration's CO2 targets a reasonable first step. But he adds that the plan provides nothing to ensure the targets will be reached. Voluntary tax credits, for example, merely would attract "people who would have installed a new furnace or shut down an inefficient plant anyway," he says.
Others, however, argue that even the targets are just business as usual. Nancy Kete, director of the climate, energy, and pollution program at the World Resources Institute, an environmental group in Washington, points out that during the past decade, greenhouse-gas emissions have been developing at close to the same rate envisioned in the Bush plan. His approach puts the country on a trajectory it would have reached without his proposals, she says.
"The White House spent a year criticizing the Kyoto Protocol, saying it didn't do anything to solve the problem in the long term," says Dr. Kete. "This plan doesn't solve anything either."
The White House does, however, propose mandatory cuts on another emissions issue largely unrelated to climate: a 70 percent reduction in nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and mercury by 2018. These are the three worst air pollutants, and contribute to smog, acid rain, regional haze, and particle pollution. Nitrogen oxides also contribute to global warming, but Kete says, the administration's impact on nitrogen oxides is expected to have a negligible effect in the battle against climate change.
Even before the administration released its proposal, some of which would require congressional approval, environmental groups were emailing reporters with blistering appraisals. It's a sign that, four months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the administration is now open to domestic criticism.
Internationally, the response to the Bush plan may not be enthusiastic either, observers say, since it still disregards past US commitments to reduce greenhouse emissions. Nor do observers expect developed countries in Europe or Asia to see this as a viable alternative to the Kyoto accords. "This is clearly going to be seen as more of the go-it-alone approach by the US," says Donald Goldberg of the Center for International Environmental Law.
The timing of Bush's announcement is thought to have been influenced by the president's departure tomorrow on a five-day trip to Asia. His first stop will be Tokyo, where the government has been anxious to see the US take some steps on greenhouse emissions.
Monitor writer Howard LaFranchi contributed to this story.