After carrying stories about melting glaciers and polar bears with nowhere to go, TV news last week had another global-warming story to tell: the melting of George W. Bush's resolve to resist environmentalist solutions to a problem he once suggested didn't exist.
The Environmental Protection Agency released a report to the climate-change team at the United Nations that signaled a departure from previous administration policy on global warming. In addition to warnings about disappearing barrier islands and vanishing alpine meadows in the Rocky Mountains, the EPA report agreed with liberal environmentalists that human activity is causing global warming, an assessment that logically argues for new regulations and for limits and taxes on human activity.
Once The New York Times called the EPA report a "stark shift" for the Bush administration, reaction erupted quickly. TeamBush had done a total flip-flop. "It's good they've done a 180-degree turn on the science," declared Kalee Kreider of the liberal National Environmental Trust. Talk show titan Rush Limbaugh attacked the president as "George W. Algore."
President Bush tried to hush the controversy by dismissing it as a distant problem. "I read the report put out by ... the bureaucracy," he told reporters. Bush spokesman Scott McClellan and other aides emphasized that the new view on climate science wouldn't lead to a change in climate policy. But it wasn't working with the news media or with conservative activists. "Everyone knows that the [White House] Council on Environmental Quality has been looking at this report for six months," said Christopher Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Compare the president's detached reaction last week to his reaction last year when the EPA departed from White House policy on the environment. He quickly and publicly overruled the EPA on issues like drinking water and global warming, and tried to cut the EPA's budget, prompting Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle to quip that EPA stood for "Essentially Powerless Agency."
Not anymore. The new policy on global warming also presents a flip-flop in political strategy. The Bush campaign won in traditionally Democratic states like coal-producing West Virginia by opposing Al Gore's energy phobia. TeamBush has worked closely with pro-energy labor unions, especially the Teamsters, on proposing to open up new energy development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Does the president now hope to win over green activists? That won't work. Environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters immediately asked why the president doesn't push for more regulations and taxes if he agrees that human energy use is a potentially grave problem.
Skeptical scientists and conservative legislators and activists saw the report as a broken promise. During the campaign Mr. Bush emphasized the uncertain science behind global-warming claims. "There's differing opinions and before we react, I think it's best to have the full accounting, full understanding of what's taking place," he said during his second debate with Mr. Gore. Then last September, the administration agreed not to rely on the Clinton-era National Assessment on Climate Change (NACC) to formulate policy.
Conservative groups and Republican legislators had sued the government during the Clinton administration to withdraw the NACC. In return for a settlement, the Bush White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy sent Mr. Horner a letter declaring that the NACC's claims "are not policy positions or official statements of the U.S. government." The State Department relayed the same sentiment to UN climate officials. But the new EPA report reverses that position by endorsing the NACC study.
University of Virginia climatologist Patrick Michaels minces no words in dismissing the NACC as "by far the most misleading publicly funded report on climate change ever produced in this nation." One of its computer-aided climate models forecasts an average temperature increase of 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. But that model also "predicted" a 2.7 degree increase for the 20th century, when the actual increase was 0.25 degrees.
The generators of the other NACC model, England's Hadley Center, warned the Clinton administration that using the NACC's global models to predict national effects was statistically unreliable.
At a time when Democrats see a political agenda behind warnings of terrorist threats that have yet to surface, global-warming skeptics keep hoping that people will notice that the liberal politics of expanding the government are driving the "science" behind dire warming scenarios that haven't occurred. They worry that the White House's reversal has pushed that day farther away.