WASHINGTON–President Bush this week is prepared to unveil what his aides have billed as a bold new national strategy to confront global climate change and work toward energy independence, even as Democrats push their own, more aggressive approach to the issue.
In previewing the State of the Union address the president will deliver tomorrow, administration officials have strongly hinted that Bush would outline steps the government will take to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, which most scientists believe contribute to global warming.
The White House has refused to discuss details in advance of the president’s speech, though many in Congress and the energy industry expect it to include raising fuel-economy standards for automobiles, more support for renewable energy sources, and efforts to control emissions at utility plants and other big polluters.
The commitment to addressing global warming marks a shift for the White House, which critics say has consistently tried to undermine scientific evidence of the link between air pollution and disturbing trends in the environment.
Still, White House officials point out that Bush is highly skeptical of mandatory, economy-wide caps on carbon dioxide emissions, citing the president’s preference for market-based incentives as a solution to the problem.
That’s not enough for many members of Congress, who argue that the time for voluntary programs has passed and that only swift, dramatic actions can avert catastrophic consequences. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi bluntly warned the president on Friday that lawmakers will act on global warming, with or without his help.
“The science of global warming and its impact is overwhelming and unequivocal,” said Pelosi, a California Democrat. “We want to work with President Bush on this important issue in a bipartisan way. But we cannot afford to wait.”
White House press secretary Tony Snow said the president plans to use his speech to link the national security imperative of developing alternative energy sources to the need to improve the environment. Bush, Snow said, believes that market-based mechanisms such as tax credits and other incentives can encourage clean-energy innovations that can reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.
“There are plenty of opportunities out there to encourage people to do the right things,” Snow said. “Carrots tend to work better than sticks.”
But some congressional Democrats and environmental activists doubt the president’s pledges on energy.
In all six of his previous State of the Union addresses, Bush has committed to work toward energy independence, yet the nation imported about 60 percent of its oil from abroad last year–up from 53 percent when Bush won office in 2000, according to the Department of Energy.
Last year, Bush drew headlines with his declaration that “America is addicted to oil.” But the budget request he submitted to Congress a few weeks later cut $100 million from federal energy conservation programs.
Bush, a former oilman, has long had close ties to the oil and gas industry, and his energy policies have focused heavily on promoting domestic oil drilling, including exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
“In the past, there’s been some head-turning rhetoric, but head-in-the-sand proposals,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters. “From our perspective, you can talk the talk all you want, but if you don’t have mandatory proposals in place, you’re not making progress. That’s the ultimate test.”
Though talk of the president even acknowledging a human impact on climate change would once have stirred optimism among environmentalists, the political landscape has shifted significantly in the past few months.
A growing number of states have taken major steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including Massachusetts, where Governor Deval Patrick last week rejoined a seven-state regional effort that includes penalties on polluters.
A consortium of major environmental groups has teamed up with a group of industry powerhouses–including Alcoa, General Electric, DuPont, and Duke Energy–in calling for federal action on requiring reductions in emissions.
The Democratic takeover of Congress, meanwhile, has brought a reversal in the attitudes of members of leadership toward climate change.
Senator Barbara Boxer, who has called global warming “a potential crisis of a magnitude we’ve never seen,” is now chairwoman of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee. The California Democrat replaced Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a Republican who famously called global warming “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”
In the House, Pelosi is signaling her commitment to the issue by creating a committee to deal exclusively with climate change and energy independence. She has charged the committee with helping to draft legislation that the House can approve by July 4.
Pelosi’s choice to head that committee, Representative Edward J. Markey of Malden, has advocated a much tougher approach to global warming than anything Bush has espoused, including mandatory emissions caps and significantly higher fuel mileage standards for vehicles.
And it is not just Democrats who are pushing global warming.
Senator John McCain of Arizona, a 2008 GOP presidential front-runner, is pushing a measure to cap greenhouse gas emissions at 2000 levels economy-wide. His co-sponsors include Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, a rising star among Democrats who is exploring a run for president, and Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent who is an influential moderate voice in Congress.
“The president really has to move, or this issue will have moved right past him,” Markey said. “I doubt that the president is going to suddenly embrace a set of policies he rejected for six years. But he has to deal with the reality that the Congress is making this one of the highest priorities for this country.”
Despite the intensifying pressure from lawmakers, some White House allies say they don’t expect Bush to make major policy changes. Representative Joe Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said that he expects the president to add fresh “nuances” to his energy policy but that Bush would not risk economic damage with drastic pollution-reducing measures.
“The expectation may exceed the reality,” Barton said of the State of the Union address. “He’s what I would call a common-sense environmentalist, who wants to keep our economy strong and protect our environment. I don’t think that you’re going to see any great change in his position.”
Barton said that if Democratic leaders tried to push an extreme approach toward confronting global warming with mandatory caps that are unreasonable for businesses, they would quickly learn that they don’t have the votes to make their proposals law.
“You’re going to make energy and environmental policy on the middle — you’re not going to make it on the extremes,” he said.
But environmental groups and many Democrats say Bush can show his commitment to tackling global warming if he institutes a mandatory emissions cap that applies to the entire US economy, and forces automakers to make more efficient cars and sport utility vehicles.
Mandatory limits are at the heart of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol international agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions–a treaty on which the United States backed out shortly after Bush took office in 2001.
“We’ve tried voluntary for a very long time, and emissions just keep going up,” said Joseph Romm, a former Clinton administration Energy Department official who published a book this month on global warming. “If you have the problem, you have to embrace the one viable solution: Putting a cap on emissions.”
The specifics of Bush’s plan aside, the biggest impact could come in sparking a new dialogue between the administration and congressional Democrats on energy policy, after years in which the two sides have viewed each other skeptically.
“Nothing is going to happen on this unless it is done on a collaborative effort,” said Frank Maisano, an energy industry spokesman in Washington.