IT took very little time after becoming US President for George W Bush to shed the centrist image carefully projected during the presidential campaign and embrace the far right conservative platform, for which his Republican Party and he himself are better known, on a variety of issues ranging from anti-missile systems to the environment. Within days of each other, Bush declared his administration’s policy of going ahead with the controversial National Missile Defence (NMD) System in direct violation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and of withdrawing from the Kyoto Treaty to globally control emissions of carbon dioxide known to be the dominant factor behind the greenhouse effect resulting in global warming. With the moderate mask stripped off, Bush’s supposedly disarming grin is looking ever more like a sneer as he cocks a snook at world leaders, international obligations and even domestic opposition and public opinion.
Bush’s policies cynically demonstrated the brittle foundations and class basis of US democracy. Having come to office through a quirk of the US electoral college system for presidential elections, despite having received less votes than his rival Democrat Al Gore and thus with a mandate from less than half of the under 50 per cent of the American electorate who cared to vote, George W Bush is giving a daily demonstration that, in the US, the opinions and concerns of corporate interests count far more than that of the people. And nothing demonstrates this better than Bush’s abandonment of the Kyoto Treaty along with a host of other decisions on environmental issues.
BUSH’S DECISION INVITES PROTESTS
Europe incensed Bush’s decision has attracted widespread odium, especially and including among the US’ otherwise closest allies in Europe and Japan, where opinion amongst both political parties and the general public is heavily in favour of the Kyoto Protocol and other international treaties dealing with global environmental problems, amongst which global warming is seen as the most pressing. Bush’s recent and first tour of Europe as President was nothing less than a disaster.
Everywhere he went, Bush was greeted by street demonstrations, an angry if not hostile press which promptly nicknamed him “Toxic Texan” and an extremely upset political leadership struggling to come to terms with an arrogant and uncaring new Big Brother. Bush’s staunch, repeated and smirky justification of his decision to launch the NMD even if this meant violating the ABM Treaty and his announcement that the US was formally pulling out of the Kyoto Treaty only rubbed salt into US allies’ wounds. As recently as March 3, the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Christine Todd Whitman had assured G-8 environment ministers at Trieste in Italy that the US would not backtrack from international commitments it made in 1997 to cut carbon dioxide emissions. All this showed that the signature of the US president on international treaties means nothing, that the US cares only for its own interests and that these are often only a surrogate for those of US corporates.
France’s environment minister Dominique Voynet denounced “Mr Bush’s unilateral attitude [as] a scandal” and added that Bush’s behaviour was “entirely provocative and irresponsible.” Italy’s environment minister Willer Bordon said that if Washington persisted in renouncing the Kyoto Protocol, then Europe, Russia and Japan should implement the accord unilaterally. Even staunch US ally Britain was shaken and British environment minister Michael Meacher said: “This is not the end of the story… we have to keep hammering on.” Swedish environment minister Kjell Larsson said the Kyoto Treaty “is still alive, and no individual country has the right to declare that a multilateral accord is dead”. The widespread international condemnation of president Bush’s decision has left the US looking increasingly isolated. Even in its own backyard, at an inaugural meeting of the 34 environment ministers of the Americas in Montreal ended with the US and Canada alone refusing to sign a document saying that advancing the Kyoto accord was foremost in their priorities for action.
Perhaps even more than NMD, which concerns all but in which only a few nuclear weapon states are directly and practically involved, the Kyoto Treaty may well prove to be the issue on which Europe and Japan begin to sharply diverge from the US and which divergence may have wider political and economic consequences as well.
To briefly recap, the Kyoto Treaty, so-called because it was finally agreed upon in Kyoto, Japan, 1997 after years of intense, hard-fought and painstaking international negotiations and annual conferences, commits 38 most industrialised countries to reduce emissions carbon-rich gases, mainly caused by burning oil, gas and coal, by 5.2 per cent over present levels by 2010. Developing nations are also covered by the Treaty, but are excluded from these emission quotas during this first phase till the first decade of the new millennium as any enforced reductions at this stage would impede badly needed economic development and also because the past and present burden of toxic emissions is so heavily loaded on the side of the developed industrialised countries. This lack of emission quotas for developing nations is one of the main objections raised by the Bush administration to the Kyoto accord although, as we shall see, this objection is neither factually-based nor defensible on other grounds, and is only another excuse to do away from Treaty obligations which are portrayed as being against US, especially corporate, economic interests.
Global climate change is driven by the accumulation of carbon-dioxide and other heat- trapping gases in the atmosphere over the past centuries. Most such greenhouse gases are extremely persistent, and stay in the atmosphere for a hundred or more years before breaking down. The industrialized countries, with less than 25 per cent of the world’s population, are responsible for about 75 per cent of the accumulated carbon dioxide emissions currently in the atmosphere. The US alone, with about 4 per cent of the world’s population, accounts for more than 25 per cent of the atmospheric carbon dioxide build-up and US power plants emit around 500 million tons of carbon per year, exceeding the combined emissions from 146 countries, roughly three-quarters of the countries in the world. India, with over 1 billion people or 4 times the US population, is responsible for just over 2 per cent of global carbon emissions, while China, the world’s most populous country, accounts for about 8.5 per cent. Clearly at present, and for many years to come, industrialized countries like the US will continue to be the biggest source of the problem. President Bush and his right-wing supporters such as the Heritage Foundation assert that the Kyoto Protocol is “unfair” and discriminatory since it exempts 80 per cent of the world’s population. Yet, 80 per cent of the global warming problem comes from just 20 per cent of the world and the US is far and away the biggest contributor to global warming pollution.
In fact, even without binding targets, leading developing countries such as Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, China and India are already acting to reduce greenhouse gases by increasing energy efficiencies in industry and transport, and upgrading technologies. For example, while US carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise, now standing about 13 per cent above 1990 levels, emissions from China have dropped more than 17 per cent since 1997. China’s energy efficiency and conservation measures since 1980 have resulted in avoided emissions of more than 400 million tons of carbon per year, an amount nearly equal to emissions of the entire US transportation sector.
The Bush administration and its drum-beaters have also been scare-mongering by claiming that adherence to Kyoto would cause enormous economic and job losses in the US. In support, President Bush’s declaration cites only one obscure study while inexplicably ignoring even relevant US government analyses showing that greenhouse gas pollution can be reduced by the US to levels called for in the Kyoto agreement without damage to the US economy. In 1998, the White House Council of Economic Advisors concluded that the costs of implementing the Kyoto Protocol would be “no more than a few tenths of 1 per cent of gross domestic product in 2010” (‘The Kyoto Protocol and the President’s Policies to Address Climate Change: Administration Economic Analysis,’ July 1998). A more detailed subsequent study by an Inter-Laboratory Group of the US Department of Energy found that increases in energy efficiency and use of renewable energy resources would enable the US to achieve most of the Kyoto-mandated emission reductions and simultaneously save consumers money, ease our energy problems, and actually improve economic performance over the long run.
Bush’s declaration on the Kyoto Treaty, and his various statements since, shockingly claim that the Treaty was based on “bad science”, that the relationship between carbon dioxide emissions and global warming is yet uncertain and there was therefore no reason to rush towards difficult and expensive emissions-reduction regimes. This line of argument, clearly echoing the voices of the US oil and coal industry, is strongly reminiscent of the long-held position of US tobacco giants that the link between cigarette-smoking and cancer was not definitively proven!
Not only have there been numerous scientific studies on climate change and carbon dioxide emissions which have firmly established the linkage between them and which went in as inputs to the protracted pre-Kyoto negotiations, studies since 1997 have only further reinforced the need for urgency action to reduce emissions driving climate change. The scientific understanding of climate change has now also been summarized in the definitive work of thousands of the world’s leading scientists collaborating as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Leading organisations of scientists and researchers in the US, such as Physicians for Social Responsibility, Union of Concerned Scientists, US Public Interest Research Group and others, have sharply brought out these and other related facts related to the Kyoto Treaty and the Bush Administration’s contrary stand on it. But all this clearly does not weigh as much with Bush as the opinions of his buddies and campaign financiers from the US oil and energy industry.
DICTATES OF OIL AND ENERGY CORPORATES
Bush’s withdrawal from the Kyoto pact is part of a broader pattern of policy pronouncements and executive actions in the field of environment which clearly follow the tune dictated by Bush’s oil and energy buddies who played such a big part in putting him in the White House.
President Bush has decided to permit drilling for oil in the Alaska Biosphere Reserve and in various other forest and nature reserves, overruling objections by environmentalists, civil rights groups and even his own Environment and other Departments. In his new energy policy, Bush has called for the Justice Department to “review”, obviously drop, litigation against energy and other companies flouting environmental laws. In the supposedly market-dictated pricing of energy in California which Bush has said he does not want to disturb, wholesale power prices in the state are today 10 times what they were last year despite no proportionate drop in supply, and the energy companies are raking in unprecedented profits. Despite please from California governor Gray Davis, Bush has refused to consider price caps, clearly acting at the behest of good buddy Enron CEO Kenneth Lay who is known to have a big say in key White House appointments. Bush’s energy plan, drafted by the National Energy Policy Development Group, reads as though it were written by oil and other energy interests which it probably was given that the NEPDG will not divulge the “experts” it consulted.
Bush made a big thing during the presidential campaign about states’ rights, even defending the right of South Carolina to fly the civil war rebel Confederate flag over the state legislature on grounds that such issues should be decided by the people of an individual state. But clearly such principles do not stand in the way of Bush’s oil buddies making some cash. Against the wishes of the people of Florida and the state’s Republican governor, Bush’s brother Jeb Bush, president George W Bush has decided to auction the rights to offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. As one media critic in the US put it, this was perhaps the first time the US has seen someone stomping on (actually a four-letter expletive was used in the article) the environment, states’ rights and his own brother in one fell swoop.
Regular readers of these columns may recall how even all the earlier international negotiations on environmental issues such as the Kyoto Treaty have been arenas of struggle between developing and developed countries, corporate interests and common peoples rights, between efforts to privatise global resources and widen public access and ownership of these global commons. Fierce battles were waged both inside and outside the negotiating rooms, between governments and between governments and people in their respective countries, in the effort by progressive forces to maximise the common good. For all their flaws, these global Treaties and agreements were advances over the earlier position where might was simply right. The Bush administrations first few months in office clearly show that these struggles, however arduous they were and appeared at the time, were only mere skirmishes compared to those likely to occur and which will be required in the years to come. The gloves are clearly off, and it is going to be down and dirty from here on.