THE ANSWER: John Sununu, White House chief of staff.
vTC The question: Why are administration officials like Secretary of State Baker and William Reilly, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, afraid to speak their minds about the greenhouse effect -- those gases widely believed by scientists to be trapping heat and dangerously raising global temperatures?
And why are they all so quiet when 130 nations are meeting near Washington on how to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, principally carbon dioxide?
The curtain on these matters lifts slightly with the following piece of high liturgy issued in Baker's behalf:
"Even though officials with oil and gas interests are not as a rule required to recuse themselves from general policy actions that may have a financial impact on those interests, Baker has removed himself generally from global climate change questions out of an abundance of caution, on a case-by-case basis, to avoid the appearance of any impropriety."
This remarkable "abundance of caution" comes from the very former Texas oil man who actively and sensibly participates in framing Persian Gulf policy and national energy strategy, who himself placed global warming among his top diplomatic priorities two years ago and who serves a president remembered for his greenhouse oratory during the last presidential campaign.
Baker, like most pros (and like Reilly and a host of administration environmentalists and scientists), backed away from the greenhouse cause when he saw Sununu's ferocity.
Sununu showed he would take no prisoners here when he ordered the dismissal of a State Department official foolish enough to take seriously the Bush-Baker pledges on global warming. Sununu seems to find most specialists in energy and environmental policy to be hysterics, bolstered by bad scientists and unreliable economists.
Regarding global warming in particular, he believes that scientists have failed to prove that there is a warming trend, that the recent increase in temperatures is being fueled by greenhouse gases or that temperature rises of 1 to 3 degrees Celsius would badly damage the global climate. He is also
convinced that available solutions to the problem are far too costly, and that cheaper ones will appear in time to prevent calamity.
Perhaps Sununu, who has installed a global warming computer model in his personal computer, is right in his skepticism. He and others argued that the dangers of acid rain were greatly exaggerated, and recent findings suggest they were correct. But such skeptics initially waved aside the ozone problem, and two years ago the perils of increasing ultraviolet light became so palpable that the world community mandated deep cuts in chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, to reduce holes in the ozone layer.
Arrayed against Sununu are people like Margaret Thatcher, solid professionals like those in the World Resources Institute in Washington and most of the scientific establishment. The hard-nosed chief of staff has held them all at bay and threatens to stymie the nations gathered in Chantilly, Va., with a transparent gimmick.
The administration began the conference last week with a pledge to stabilize its production of greenhouse gases. But as everyone at the meeting well understood, that could be accomplished simply by keeping a prior commitment to reduce CFCs.
The administration proposes to do nothing about the burning of fossil fuels like oil and coal, the main sources of carbon dioxide. In fact, U.S. production of carbon dioxide will significantly increase in the coming years, more so because of the new energy policy. By contrast, Western European nations have already promised steep cuts in fossil fuel burning.
What is disturbing here is not Sununu's public relations ploy, but his lack of practicality. He can retain all his skepticism about global warming, but the point remains that the very steps needed to reduce the supposed greenhouse effect are justifiable in their own right: Carbon dioxide fouls the air. An oil-burning economy means continued dependence on imports. Destruction of forests harms life itself.
Has Sununu been enforcing administration silence about such considerations on his own tack or in behalf of Bush? If Bush has interest in global warming besides campaign bluster, he might go to the Chantilly conference and hear how the alarm bells sound for himself.