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The president's annual State of the Union speech is guaranteed to disappoint. Even in far less troubled times, rare is the speech that doesn't infuriate large segments of both his base and the opposition.
This year, President Bush built on 2006's "grow your own energy" riff with winking repetition of the woodchip and switchgrass references. But this time, he vowed that alternative fuels will help address the "serious challenge" of climate change.
While this is admittedly the first time Mr. Bush invoked climate change in such an address, it was in such passing fashion as to seem an out-of-place throwaway line. Yet it constituted the widely if inaccurately hyped policy shift on this hot-button issue: We expect to lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2), as a co-benefit of diversifying our energy sources.
While theoretically possible, experience suggests that maintaining a healthy and growing economy will do much more to reduce (or at least further reduce the rate of growth of) man's potentially disruptive contribution of about 2 percent of total global GHGs to a massively complex climate system.
However well-intentioned this invocation of climate change, it marked another in a long series of missed opportunities by the Bush administration to seize the politically hot-button climate change debate by its rhetorical horns, and inject much-needed reality into a discourse gorged with increasingly shrill, misleading rhetoric.
The speech that Mr. Bush should have given would assert the America's leadership position relative to major economies. Pick any year since the Kyoto Protocol was agreed to in 1997, Mr. Bush should have said, and the U.S. CO2 emission performance is superior to that of all major Kyoto parties, including and most notably Europe (CO2 being the focus of the many pending legislative proposals).
One would never know this from reading European Union press releases, most any media account or even White House statements on the issue. The latter fact is deeply troubling given the political and diplomatic capital lost over public misunderstanding of this matter, and also the traction that proposals to mimic Europe's failed approach are gaining in Congress. In truth, Europe's CO2 emissions are rising twice as fast as those of the U.S. since Kyoto, three times as fast since 2000. This figure balloons to more than five times as fast when one tallies the individual country average of the EU-15.
Instead, this invited more cheap rhetorical shots about Mr. Bush's purported dereliction, and teed up the greens to express deep disappointment with his remarks. This is not surprising; time has proven that approval among President Bush's antagonists on this issue is not attainable. The reality is that even were he to reverse the Kyoto course set by President Clinton and ask the Senate to ratify the treaty, the Kyoto Industry would simply sniff that it was too late, and that, to show he's serious, he must agree now to deeper cuts for when Kyoto expires in 2012.
Climate change and Kyoto have simply become totems in the larger anti-Bush struggle. When he is gone the rhetoric will calm, the world will get used to the idea that, like 155 other countries including China, India, Mexico, South Korea and Brazil, under no president will the U.S. ratify a global pact rationing greenhouse emissions. This is particularly true regarding a regime with such a miserable record already, with its perverse incentives, economic cost and, frankly, the pervasive cheating.
Even a scaled-back and solely domestic replication of Kyoto would simply be a smaller mistake on the road to the same disastrous goal of ensuring energy poverty and economic outsourcing in the developed world. Yet given as the longstanding goal of a vocal and powerful yet tiny minority, Congress is now making loud noises about doing just that. A cadre of Wall Street insiders within the administration is also urging such action, Wall Street standing to gain greatly under this scheme at consumers' expense. That, too, is a current European reality that must be brought to the fore of the debate.
There remains time. The Democrat majority see no need to rush "climate change" off the stage before the 2008 elections, given the free pass they are granted on the issue in no small part to the administration's reluctance to fight back. President Bush failed to right the rhetorical ship on climate change in his State of the Union address, though fortunately he volunteered nothing to deepen the policy conundrum. The administration must articulate the facts of superior U.S. emissions performance to avoid the absurd outcome of leaping onto a sinking policy ship, leaving behind the most successful approach in a futile struggle for elite approval.