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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

News Analysis

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood speaks with Living On Earth's political observer, Mark Hertsgaard, about the timing of and the politics around the climate change report.


CURWOOD: Here with us now to discuss the report is Living on Earth’s political commentator, Mark Hertsgaard. Mark, tell me, what’s your analysis here of why this report came out in such an unpublicized fashion?

HERTSGAARD: Well, because it flies in the face of most of what Mr. Bush has been saying about climate change for a while. And if you were paying attention, you saw that the president actively distanced himself from this report. It came out in The New York Times on Monday. By Tuesday, Mr. Bush was dismissing it, saying, Oh, yes, I read that report put out by "the bureaucracy," that bogeyman of so much republican ideology. So, clearly, he’s not on board with this. And one even has to wonder how well it was coordinated within the administration, because it was almost like he was blindsided.

CURWOOD: Well now, how does this report fit into the history of President Bush’s stance on global warming?

HERTSGAARD: Yes. It’s been quite an evolution, you might say, for the longest time. Before he was running for president, he said climate change is not real. There’s no proof of it. Then, when he had to run for president, his advisors convinced him that was not going to fly. So, he said that climate change was real, but there was no proof that humans were behind it. That’s what makes this new report so interesting, Steve, is that now his administration is officially on record as saying that climate change is not only real, but humans are causing it. That’s a big shift for him. But it is only catching up with where the rest of the world was seven years ago.

CURWOOD: Now, the president’s reluctance to embrace climate change has been an issue that environmental activists have dogged him with. What’s their response to this new report? He does say that humans are causing climate change.

HERTSGAARD: Yes. And they’re happy to hear that. They say, well, there’s nothing, you have to admit the problem before you can fix it. So there’s a certain sort of snickering, ‘I told you so’ aspect of it. But mainly, I have to say that they are dismayed by this. I talked to Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, a number of other organizations. And they say, look, how, on the one hand, can the United States say this global warming is a problem and on the other hand say we’re not going to change our energy policies. That is irresponsible. And they plan to hit him very hard on this, not just at the upcoming Earth Summit in South Africa later this year, but presumably in the fall elections as well, going after republican candidates about this issue.

CURWOOD: But on the other hand, Mark, you have to consider that some industry groups say that this report goes way too far. There’s criticism, really, from both sides, you might say. But, where, do you think, in this report might the administration be making a step forward?

HERTSGAARD: I think there’s one very important thing and you don’t hear the environmentalists admit this. But, perhaps unwittingly, the Bush administration has put its finger on one of the central facts about global climate change. And it is the most fiendish part of this problem, which is the lag effect, which is the fact that we as a civilization are now stuck with however much global warming the last hundred years of emissions is going to generate. And that is very, very true. And it is politically difficult. The environmentalists don’t want to admit it because it is almost a paralyzing political fact. Because it says, look, we’re stuck with whatever warming and whatever changes we make today won’t really have an effect on the situation, on the problem, for another 30 years. It’s very much like the ozone hole. Those chemicals are up in the air. And they are going to continue to destroy the ozone layer, even though we stopped producing them ten years ago. The same with global warming. We’ve got a certain amount of it up in the system and there’s nothing to be done about that. And that is why, I think, the Bush administration is trying to get some political cover by saying what we need to do here is focus on the adaptive strategies.

CURWOOD: That sounds awfully discouraging, the notion that we should just focus on adaptive techniques.

HERTSGAARD: Well, it would, Steve, except for the second half of the equation, which is that, if you’re halfway into a raging, flooding river, you don’t go deeper. You try to move back towards the shore. And a number of the environmentalists point out, had we gone solar, and had we gone green energy 30 years ago when a lot of people were first talking about it after the first Earth Day, and so forth, we wouldn’t be facing this kind of problem right now.

So, by no means is this an excuse not to do anything. In fact, it underlines the urgency of moving towards a green energy future. And that’s where, already, the Europeans and some industries are already moving in that direction. And that’s why it’s such a shame, in some ways, that the United States continues its foot-dragging on this vital issue.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth’s political commentator. Thanks, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.



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