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Heat on U.S. climate policy

Recent events have focused a spotlight on the Bush administration’s position on climate change on both the international and national stage.

On June 7, national science academies from 11 countries (including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences) issued a joint statement, saying that “the scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action.” They called on the Group of 8 (G8) countries, which are most responsible for global greenhouse emissions, to act immediately in adopting and developing technology for climate change mitigation. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has made climate change a leading issue for his tenure as president of the European Union, which began July 1, and for the G8 meeting held from July 6 to 8, in Gleneagles, Scotland.

On July 8, the G8 countries issued a post-meeting statement saying they agree that climate change is real and “that human activity is contributing to it, and that it could affect every part of the globe.” But no movement forward stemmed from the meeting on how to tackle the issues. Although President Bush acknowledged the “need to control greenhouse gases” in a speech in Denmark before the G8 meeting, some observers say that his administration’s policy is to avoid any economic repercussions, which has stalled federal emissions regulations. The Bush administration is “still arguing [that there is] uncertainty in the science,” says Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

Although the United States is not party to the Kyoto Protocol, it participates in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and must report its mitigation actions. The Bush administration says that programs it has initiated to encourage companies to voluntarily cut emissions, among other measures, will help to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2012. John Marburger, science advisor to the president and head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, wrote in June that “the United States will spend $5.2 billion in fiscal year 2005 on climate change science research, advanced energy technologies, voluntary programs, and related international assistance — far more than any other nation.”

In Congress, the U.S. Senate again rejected a McCain-Lieberman amendment on June 22 that would have capped carbon emissions and set up an emissions-trading system. On the Senate floor, some senators questioned whether climate change is real, saying that they supported the Bush administration’s position that any control measures would harm the national economy. Still, on the same day, the Senate passed a nonbinding resolution that says that a majority of its membership is committed to supporting a program of mandatory controls on emissions. The agreement marks “the first time a majority of senators went on the record saying that the issues are real, and that we need to move forward to finding resolutions sooner rather than later,” says Peter Frumhoff, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit environmental and arms control advocacy group.

In conjunction with the June activity in Congress and the statement from the national academies, the business community also issued a call for action on climate change through the World Economic Forum on June 9. Twenty-four international companies, including BP, Petrobras and SwissRe, signed a statement that encouraged the G8 to act, to create a sustainable business climate with regard to emissions caps and other policy issues.

Drawing more attention to the Bush administration’s climate change policy, The New York Times reported on June 8 that the chief of staff of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (a coordinating body within the Executive Branch) watered down language in scientific reports from federal agencies that addressed global climate change. A leak from a former federal employee showed that Philip Cooney, a lawyer and former lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, changed language in or added caveats to reports. On June 10, Cooney stepped down from his position and will start working with ExxonMobil’s public affairs division this fall.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in a press briefing that Cooney was one of many people involved in interagency reviews of such documents. “Our reports are based on the best scientific knowledge,” McClellan said. “The Office of Science and Technology Policy is involved very much in this process, and the head of that office [Marburger] is a well-respected scientist. And he has signed off on these reports because they’re based on sound science.”

Naomi Lubick

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