- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 3, 2008

NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW:

The White House’s top environmental adviser said Monday that under President Bush, the U.S. has already taken most major steps needed to combat global warming in the near term and said that’s just part of a positive environmental record that is profoundly misconstrued by environmentalists.

On the day the Senate voted 74-14 to start a new debate on global warming, James L. Connaughton, chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, told editors and reporters at The Washington Times that Mr. Bush’s tenure has seen decreases in some types of air pollution, historic action on rehabilitating brownfields sites and a decrease in overall greenhouse-gas emissions, compared with an increase of 18 percent from 1990 to 2000.

“People say we’ve accomplished nothing, but the greatest slowdown in emissions happened under our watch with our programs,” he said.

“Since President Bush took office and before some of these new programs are now coming online, we’ve now enjoyed a net reduction in greenhouse gases of 3 percent, for reasons to which the government contributed and for reasons to which the private sector contributed and for reasons to which the weather contributed,” Mr. Connaughton said. “It’s just fascinating to me that in the period in which it is oft described as nothing has occurred, is the period in which the most occurred since we paid attention to this issue.”

Mr. Connaughton said the efforts include billions of dollars to stimulate technology, five mandates that have been enacted and an agreement to reduce hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), which are particularly troubling as greenhouse gases.

“We have come a huge distance since 2001, when none of these programs were on the table, and they’re all now in law. And it’s our view that those are largely now adequate to the current task we have in front of us,” he said. “We could do a little more, but that’s about what we can achieve between now and 2020, 2025.”

Environmental groups challenged his claims, pointing to government statistics that suggest the Bush administration deserves little credit for recent drops in both conventional air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions.

“They have no policies that would account for a decrease,” said David Doniger, policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate center.

Mr. Doniger was mystified by Mr. Connaughton’s claims of decreased greenhouse gas emissions, saying government statistics show just the opposite. The statistics do show a small drop in one year, from 2005 to 2006, but attribute that mainly to favorable weather.

John Walke, NRDC’s clean air director, said the Bush administration has received credit for fighting for reductions in two air pollutants, nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide, as well as some other successes. But he said it’s not clear whether the rules that the administration issued to control those pollutants will survive a court challenge.

“There’s a reason the public’s opinion of the EPA’s agenda under the Bush administration is mainly a negative opinion. I think it’s deserved,” Mr. Walke said.

The Senate this week began debating a bill that goes much further than Mr. Bush’s, calling for a cap-and-trade program that would reduce emissions over time. It would allow companies to buy emissions credits and then trade them, which would allow those companies who can most easily use technology to reduce emissions to do so and to sell their credits to those having a tougher time.

Opponents say it amounts to trillions of dollars in new costs paid by consumers and creates a massive bureaucracy.

Mr. Bush on Monday issued a strongly worded statement vowing to veto the Senate bill if it reached his desk, but lawmakers doubted he will get the chance - they predicted the bill would die in the legislature, the victim of opposition because of high gas prices and high expected costs to state economies.

The Senate already has become mired as Republicans and Democrats fought Monday over how long the debate should run.

Mr. Connaughton said the irony is that Congress could already be declaring victory on taking action but is ignoring its own successes.

“There’s just this incredible failure to catch up with the facts, and what’s funny is that the very people who voted for all these policies are the ones who forgot that they just voted for them all, and when they voted for them, took credit for what a big contributor it was going to be to greenhouse gas reduction,” he said.

The climate change issue will be a top issue at two upcoming international summits that Mr. Bush will attend, the European Union summit next week and the Group of Eight meeting next month.

Mr. Connaughton said that the U.S. is still seeking to include China and India in a global agreement “that is constructive and cooperative, and not punitive.”

“We believe there is a way to engage China and India on those terms in which they would be willing to make internationally binding commitments that are respectful of their sovereign decisions about the pace at which they can make progress on this issue, just as we want the international community to respect our sovereign decision about the appropriate pace at which we can make progress on this issue,” he said.

Any “top-down approach” that seeks to impose mandatory uniform emission caps across the globe will guarantee China and India’s noninvolvement, Mr. Connaughton said, as well as risk having “a handful of the developed countries not signing on.”

He pointed to success in getting China and India to take part in an international agreement to cut HCFCs as evidence for how the process should work.

“That will reduce more emissions than the Kyoto Protocol, and yet nobody is pointing to this more focused, sector-based outcome that does have international agreement, does come with some economic advantages. … Yet we’re still fighting these big costly approaches which doesn’t make as much sense.”

The adviser also took aim at the extremes of the debate, saying environmentalists are shooting at the wrong targets.

“Much of what we read about, much of what we deal with, are big fights at the margin of environmental performance, when the real action is at the core of these more sensible strategies,” he said.

“America has proven that clear standard setting and innovation produces outcomes that often surprise people with their success. And when you try to do it top-down and try to micromanage those outcomes, more often than not you produce failure.”

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