PRESIDENT George W. Bush finds himself under siege after rejecting the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty that would impose punitive energy sanctions on the U.S. economy in response to unjustified global warming fears.
Foreign politicians, American political opponents and fund-raisers for green groups are all ganging up on him. It could get worse once the sharks smell blood in the water. But there are sensible ways to meet the challenge.
Of course, the critics are being disingenuous. Bush announced his opposition to Kyoto during his campaign and has never wavered. His position also reflects the 1997 Senate vote of 95 to 0 against any treaty that would cause severe economic damage to the United States but exempt most of the rest of the world.
AND WHILE the American public may express concern about global warming, a recent Time/CNN poll indicates that less than half would be willing to pay an additional 25 cents for a gallon of gasoline.
True enough, the president's sense of public relations has not been the greatest.
For example, he should have reiterated his position after the election using the bully pulpit instead of waiting until March. He could have stressed the higher energy costs flowing from Kyoto and the severe job losses as industry moved offshore, pointing to the calamitous consequences on lower-income groups and attacking green elitists at the same time. He neglected to inform the public that Kyoto is not supported by adequate science and is ineffective in reducing the rise in greenhouse gases.
In any case, even environmental groups, certainly the moderate ones, agree that cutting energy use by 35 percent in a decade is wildly unrealistic.
WORST OF ALL, he has been keeping on the White House staff and in key government departments Gore acolytes who are actively opposed to his policies. The White House has even recruited from environmental organizations. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.
But it is not too late; there are countermeasures that might work and would let his critics take the onus for opposing Kyoto. But while they might conceivably change the specific targets or timetables or modalities of Kyoto, they would keep its structure in place.
And this would almost certainly come back to haunt us. Kyoto's expanding bureaucracy and the 180 or so nations that form the Conference of the Parties to the Protocol would get their hooks into U.S. energy policy and thereby our economic policy. Unelected regulators not responsible or even responsive to our citizens would determine our economic future.
To avoid paying such a heavy price, it would be best to return to the original 1992 climate treaty and its voluntary efforts to control emissions through conservation and higher energy efficiency.
SLOWLY RISING fuel prices, as oil and gas become depleted, and advances in technology will surely accelerate the trend toward decarbonization - producing more GNP output with less fossil fuels.
Hybrid electric cars, electricity generation with fuel cells and advanced nuclear reactors, more efficient appliances, and cheaper wind and solar energy production are all in the offing.
In the meantime, advancing climate science could convince the public that human-induced climate change is a minor contributor to the much larger natural changes and that, in any case, a slightly warmer climate and higher carbon-dioxide levels would benefit agricultural crops and all of humanity.
The Kyoto Protocol is the opening wedge. Unless the Bush White House takes a firm stance on climate policy, its energy policy is in peril; one cannot separate the two.
BEYOND THIS, foreign policy and national sovereignty are at stake.
(Editor's note: The author is professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, a former director of the U.S. Weather Satellite Service and author of Hot Talk, Cold Science: Global Warming's Unfinished Debate.)
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service