PERHAPS it's not surprising that former oilman George Bush, at a summit meeting in the petroleum capital of the United States, took a powder on the critical environmental issue of global warming. The ``greenhouse effect'' - the rise in global temperatures with potentially devastating impact on Earth's climate - is caused chiefly by the burning of fossil fuels. But Mr. Bush's backtracking from his campaign pledge to counter the greenhouse effect with the ``White House effect'' is disappointing. The other G-7 leaders, especially German Chancellor Kohl and British Prime Minister Thatcher, came to Houston committed to checking global warming. They wanted to follow up the vague communiqu'e issued at last year's economic summit with specific goals and timetables for stabilizing and, in time, reducing the carbon dioxide emissions that trap heat against the Earth's surface.
Bush, however, stonewalled on the issue. Insisting that further study of global warming is required before what the president characterizes as growth-retarding policies are adopted, Bush agreed only to an international conference in 1992.
Now it's true that scientists can't predict the course of global warming with precision. Hundred-year climate projections have a margin of error. But the greenhouse calculations are more than just voodoo science. A recent report by the respected United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was enough to convince Mrs. Thatcher that action against global warming is needed.
It's also true that the long-term solution to global warming - replacing fossil fuels with clean energy sources - will require a fundamental adjustment in industrialized economies. More study is indeed required.
But there are short-term steps the US can take that are less costly and make good sense for such inherently important reasons as improving energy efficiency and reducing dependence on foreign oil. We could start by mandating higher gas efficiency for cars and trucks, and devising further incentives for mass transit.
The president is surely right to be concerned about chilling economic growth with hasty environmental policies. Many of the economic models that ``pro-growth'' conservatives rely on, however, presume the continuation of the extravagant, not to say wanton, consumption of energy that underlies the American economy. In fact, studies indicate that there's plenty of room to tighten energy efficiency in the US without slowing economic growth.
At a time when the world needs strong, forward-looking leadership to tackle a major global threat for the 21st century, the American president has chosen to bury his head in (oil-bearing) sand.