Fighting global warming without ammo

March 08, 2002|By Edward Flattau

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's plan to combat global warming is fine as far as it goes. But it doesn't go far enough. His proposal is rooted in the principle that "economic growth is key to environmental progress, because it is growth that provides the resources for investment in clean technologies."

There is some truth to that, provided the economic growth is environmentally sustainable. Clean technologies alone cannot save an environment that is deliberately and rampantly polluted.

Mr. Bush never spells out the economic growth he envisions, and with good reason. His administration is known to be contemplating moves to accelerate economic growth by reducing pollution abatement requirements for power plants and easing restrictions on industrial activity in publicly owned conservation areas. It's a sure-fire formula for realizing short-term profits at the expense of long-term public -- and environmental -- health.

Mr. Bush talks about "looking for ways to increase the amount of carbon stored by America's farms and forests through a strong conservation initiative."

But it looks as if the administration's left hand doesn't know what its right is doing. Consider that the administration has moved to facilitate commercial incursions that would level portions of our national forests and drain our nation's fast-declining stock of virgin wetlands. There's reason to fear that, under Mr. Bush's plan, the economy would work at cross-purposes to environmental protection rather than finance it.

There's nothing wrong with Mr. Bush asking companies to voluntarily cut back on pollution, so long as he is aware of the significant shortcomings of this approach and has a backup plan in place. He should be aware of volunteerism's weaknesses.

As governor of Texas, Mr. Bush asked utilities to voluntarily meet anti-pollution retrofit deadlines, and experienced a poor response. He should also be aware of recent studies and data that demonstrate an honor system is an unreliable means of ensuring corporate cooperation. Without mandatory standards and explicit sanctions, there is simply too much temptation for the less trustworthy captains of industry to skirt corners.

Mr. Bush would encourage corporate volunteerism by offering tax incentives not to pollute. But if a company could quickly enhance its balance sheet more from an operation with significant pollution fallout than from receiving a tax write-off for not polluting, how many corporate chiefs could resist such an instantaneous payoff? Remember the pressure they are under from stockholders to show immediate results.

In addition, many of the corporations that the president has in mind pay little or no taxes because of loopholes in the Internal Revenue Code. So how much of an inducement are tax breaks going to be?

Mr. Bush's plan would not reduce the level of greenhouse gas emissions. At best, it would only slow the rate of increase in these emissions. Indeed, his proposal is little more than a shell game in which hard decisions to curb polluters are put off for a decade or more while global warming proceeds unimpeded.

The president makes use of fiercely disputed assumptions to contend that mandatory emission reductions would have a devastating impact on the American economy and job creation. A more plausible set of assumptions, based on the salutary presence of improved energy efficiency, creates a scenario in which mandatory cutbacks in industrial greenhouse emissions would have a negligible effect on the nation's economy and, quite possibly, would have a mild beneficial influence.

Overall, public health and the environment would be put at risk by Mr. Bush's half-hearted attempt to address a full-blown problem.

Edward Flattau writes from Washington about environmental issues.

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