New EPA report puts Bush in environmental quandary

Study on threats of global warming presents dilemmas for a White House skeptical about climate change.

Rocky Mountain meadows and barrier islands disappearing. Coral reefs damaged. Droughts, floods, rising sea levels.

This disturbing vision of climate change – or at least its potential – would not be a surprise coming from global-warming activists. But as a warning from the Bush administration, it clearly is.

In a report to the United Nations, the Environmental Protection Agency says that man-made greenhouse gases in the US will increase 43 percent between 2000 and 2020. And while acknowledging some scientific uncertainties, the EPA says that the recent warming trend "is real and has been particularly strong within the past 20 years ... due mostly to human activities."

This report from government agencies (the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the State Department, and others were involved as well) puts President Bush in something of a double bind.

From the start, and in line with energy and oil interests that are among his biggest supporters, the president has expressed skepticism about the scientific basis for reported climate change. He has resisted mandated cuts in carbon dioxide emissions (the main greenhouse gas). And he has refused to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 international agreement setting goals and deadlines for industrial nations to reduce their impact on climate.

For now, he dismisses the 268-page EPA document as a "report put out by the bureaucracy," even though it comes nearly a year and a half into his own administration. This may serve to mollify some on the political right who are upset at the Bush administration's EPA report on global warming. But it's also given his environmental critics added political ammunition.

"Having admitted the extent of the problem and identified the cause, a policy of inaction becomes impossible to defend," says David Hawkins, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate program.

The president and administration insist that Bush's proposals indicate plenty of action on climate change, and will meet whatever global-warming challenges exist.

This includes the recently announced "Clear Skies" initiative, which reduces sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury emitted by power plants (although less than existing laws would require). As for carbon dioxide, the president's plan calls for voluntary steps leading to less "carbon intensity" (the amount of CO2 per unit of economic output), although the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere would continue to grow, assuming continued economic growth.

Meanwhile, the number of countries agreeing to the Kyoto greenhouse gas reductions continues to grow, giving much of the world the impression that the United States is going it alone on global warming – and in the wrong direction.

Writing in the Guardian newspaper of London recently, UK environment minister Michael Meacher said, "The US has to rejoin the [Kyoto] climate talks if disaster is to be averted."

For the Kyoto Protocol to take force, at least 55 countries responsible for at least 55 percent of global emissions of climate-changing gases must ratify the agreement. The aim is to require cuts in global CO2 emissions by an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. (The figure for the US would be about 7 percent.)

To date, 73 countries have signed on, including Japan this week and the 15-nation European Union last Friday. At an EU-Russia summit last week, Russian officials said their country is committed to ratification "as soon as possible." Once Russia joins in, the 55 percent mark on global emissions will have been passed.

In this country, there is a parallel trend of states and cities declaring their intent to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Kyoto goals and deadlines – despite Bush's warning this week that "the Kyoto treaty would severely damage the United States economy."

Massachusetts and New Hampshire have passed legislation to cut carbon emissions from power plants, and California is considering a measure limiting such emissions from cars and light trucks. More than 100 US cities have vowed to cut CO2 emissions, some of them more than would be required under Kyoto.

Many US companies that do business abroad also see the handwriting on the wall and are cutting their greenhouse gases. "The treaty is now very likely to come into force this year, and American businesses will have to comply with it in their worldwide operations," says Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust in Washington.

On Capitol Hill next week, the Senate takes up a bill that would regulate power-plant emissions of CO2 for the first time and set stricter standards for sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury.

Sen. Jim Jeffords (I) of Vermont, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, authored the "Clean Power Act."

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