History Won’t Warm to “W”

Senior Fellow Joseph J. Romm says history will remember the president for his global warming failures, not just Iraq.

President George W. Bush believes history will end up judging him favorably. He compares himself to Harry Truman who left office unpopular in large part because of a difficult war on the Korean peninsula but who is now admired by historians. President Bush suffers from an unpopular war, too, yet absent a dramatic reversal in President Bush’s climate policies—never mind Iraq—it’s a good bet that neither historians nor future generations of Americans will ever warm to President Bush.

Predicting the long-term consequences of the president’s misguided and mismanaged invasion of Iraq is impossible. But it is not at all difficult to detail the suffering that humanity faces because of global warming. If the United States “stays the course” with President Bush’s non-interventionist climate policies over the next decade, then by the third decade of this century all of American life—politics, international relations, our homes, our jobs, our industries, the kind of cars we drive—will be forever transformed.

“There can no longer be genuine doubt that human-made gases are the dominant cause of observed warming,” explained James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in April 2005. Worse, the great ice sheets atop and anchoring our planet are melting much faster than most scientists thought even a few years ago. John Holdren, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, warns that sea levels could rise seven feet to 14 feet by the end of this century.

Our nation along with the rest of the world will face suffering that dwarfs the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. If Bush’s policies continue for another decade, then government intervention in our lives on a scale not seen since World War II is probably unavoidable. Historians living through such times will render a harsh judgment on a leader of the wealthiest nation on the planet who not only ignored the warnings about global warming but actively worked to block every effort to avoid or minimize the risk too.

Bush has ignored the wealth of scientific information that makes clear human-induced global warming will not be on the mild side, and may well be catastrophic. Unfazed by the evidence, the president refused early in his presidency to join all other industrialized nations save Australia in action under the Kyoto Accord to reduce emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. Since then, senior administration officials have slammed the door on any serious action in Bush’s second term and opposed actions by individual states. Along the way, the Bush White House has stymied international efforts that could have actually led to global reductions in time to avoid the worst.

The president’s track record is truly awful. The Kyoto Accord required only a seven percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions below 1990 levels by 2010, yet he rejected Kyoto, saying it would do irreparable harm to the economy. Then, after intense lobbying by the White House, Congress rejected a still weaker cap that did not actually require an absolute emissions reduction.

Instead of dealing with the threat posed by climate change, the administration has systematically worked to suppress the truth about it. The Government Accountability Office concluded in April 2005 that the Bush climate program “lacks a major component required by law: periodic assessments of how rising temperatures may affect people and the environment.” The White House even hired a former lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute to censor scientific conclusions in government climate reports.

Fortunately, global warming is not inevitable. The president could burnish his historical legacy by embracing serious climate change policies in his 2007 State of the Union speech later this month. If he doesn’t, his successors in the Oval Office must slash greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide by 2050 to 60 percent below 1990 levels. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has vowed the U.K. will do just that. And Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California has committed his state to even deeper reductions.

An unprecedented national and international effort is required to cut greenhouse gas emissions as sharply as possible without crushing economic growth. In addition, unprecedented efforts must be taken to plan for the worst effects of global warming—sea level rises, massive storm surges, widespread heatwaves and drought, and the spread of tropical diseases.

Consider the planning needed just to relocate the hundreds of millions of people who live near the world’s shorelines. Imagine the engineering that will be required to build massive dikes around Manhattan, Miami, Houston, San Francisco, and dozens of the world’s greatest cities.

The next president of the United States, together with Congress, must quickly repudiate the Bush administration’s climate policies across-the-board and embrace an aggressive strategy to bring the myriad tools of government together to address the problem.

These policies include a cap on carbon emissions, a serious increase in fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks, and at least a doubling of federal R&D for clean energy. Such a policy reversal won’t spare Bush the harsh judgment of history, but it would spare the country the worst consequences of his mistakes. Few predictions of the future can be made with such high certainty.

Joseph J. Romm, Ph.D., is a former Acting Assistant Secretary of Energy. He is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he manages the blog. He is author of Hell and High Water: Global Warming—The Solution and the Politics (William Morrow, January 2007).

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Joseph Romm

Senior Fellow