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In Bush's Final Year, The Agenda Gets Greener

'Nobody Ever Believes It'

As Democratic leaders look on, President Bush speaks before signing the energy bill last week. The legislation includes measures designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
As Democratic leaders look on, President Bush speaks before signing the energy bill last week. The legislation includes measures designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)

Among those who trekked to Texas while Bush prepared to run for president in 2000 was Krupp, who has been a pioneer in collaborating with business to forge market-based solutions to pollution. During a 1 1/2 -hour discussion at the governor's mansion, Krupp described working with Bush's father on sulfur dioxide emission trading and said a similar system would make sense with carbon dioxide. "He said if we were to go ahead with regulation, that is how we would do it," Krupp recalled. "But the 'if' was a big if."

Just how big became clear after Bush took office. Amid rolling blackouts in California, Vice President Cheney pushed Bush to abandon a campaign pledge to impose mandatory reductions on carbon emissions from power plants. Summoned to the Oval Office in March 2001, Christine Todd Whitman, then head of the Environmental Protection Agency, braced to argue, but Bush had made up his mind. As she left, she saw Cheney picking up a letter already signed by Bush announcing the decision.

Citing economic costs and exemptions for developing nations such as China, Bush then repudiated the Kyoto Protocol curbing greenhouse gases -- not a particularly radical departure, since the Senate had made clear it would not be ratified, but a move that cemented the impression of a president uninterested in working with the world. Less noticed was his June 2001 speech vowing to fight climate change in other ways, an address aides point to as proof he always took the issue seriously. "I usually carry a copy of that speech around with me," said John H. Marburger III, Bush's science adviser, "because nobody ever believes it."

Aides say Bush has done more on climate change than he gets credit for. Beyond signing higher fuel efficiency standards into law last week, he has invested $37 billion in research into alternative fuels and other technology, promoted construction of nuclear plants that do not emit greenhouse gases, and moved to require cleaner appliances and building codes. "We're actually doing it in big bite-sized pieces," said James L. Connaughton, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

But the administration over the years has also appeared intent on minimizing the existence of global warming, or at least the human contribution to it. Government scientists were allowed to talk to reporters only if cleared by the White House. Testimony and op-ed columns were edited to change definitive words such as "is" to hedging terms such as "may," or even to excise whole sections.

And more aggressive measures were consistently rejected during closed-door meetings. "A few of us would suggest something like 'How about we seize the initiative and announce something big on climate change?' " said a former White House official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. "These suggestions invariably didn't make the cut."

'There Really Was an Evolution'

By 2006, though, something had begun to change. A host of governors, including Republicans such as California's Arnold Schwarzenegger, moved to impose their own plans to curb greenhouse gases. Major corporations, nervous about a patchwork-quilt approach, started agitating for a single national policy. Even some evangelical leaders, the backbone of the Republican coalition, joined the cause.

Sen. Tom Carper is among those who have used every passing encounter to lobby Bush for stronger action to stop climate change. A former Delaware governor, he has known Bush since their days at National Governors Association meetings together. In February 2006, Bush invited Carper and his wife to a small dinner with the visiting king of Jordan at the White House. During a break, Carper got Bush alone.

"That was the first time I sensed a shift in his view of warming, less inclined to be dismissive," Carper recalled. "I said, 'Mr. President, the science is irrefutable. There's a way to reduce this threat that carbon dioxide poses that doesn't put us in a tailspin, that harnesses economic forces and is fair to consumers, and we ought to do it.' The thing that I was struck by is not anything that he said, but that he listened."

Bush seemed to be moving along with elements of his party. During a private meeting with historians to talk about various issues a few months later, according to a person in the room, Bush confided that while he still thought Kyoto was fundamentally flawed, he regretted the manner in which he repudiated it -- too abrupt, too defiant and too negative without offering an alternative. Bush also tapped as Treasury secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., Goldman Sachs's chief executive and a committed environmentalist.

Krupp saw Bush in the same period at an environmental documentary screening at the White House. "He was definitely in a different place," Krupp said. "He was saying, 'Just because I didn't go forward with Kyoto doesn't mean I don't want to do something.' That's when I detected there really was an evolution going on."

Aides detected it, too. Drafting a new National Security Strategy that spring, officials wrote a chapter on global threats such as climate change. "Merely expressing our opposition to Kyoto wasn't sufficient. There should be a framework for something more," said Peter D. Feaver, a National Security Council staffer who led the drafting. "By that point, the evolution of thinking was underway. I don't remember anyone pushing back."


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