George W. Bush snared front-page attention for his supposed shift on global warming, but the President’s tepid “aspirational goals” – and comments from his NASA chief that a hotter planet might actually be beneficial – continue to reflect Bush’s long-held doubts about the urgency of the problem.

Since running for the presidency in 2000, Bush has justified his foot-dragging on the issue, in part, through reliance on coal-industry-financed research embracing the same notion expressed by Bush’s NASA administrator Michael Griffin, that global warming may turn out to be a good thing.

For instance, in a major energy policy address on September 29, 2000, candidate Bush turned to research from the Greening Earth Society, a think tank financed by the Western Fuels Association, a cooperative owned by seven coal-burning utilities.

In the speech, Bush offered the surprising assessment that technological breakthroughs, such as the Internet, were draining the nation’s electrical grid and required construction of many new power plants, including coal-fired generators.

“Today, the equipment needed to power the Internet consumes 8 percent of all the electricity produced in the United States,” Bush declared, an assertion that drew little press attention but astounded many energy experts who consider the Internet and similar advances, on balance, a way to improve productivity and reduce energy demands.

But there was another level to Bush’s Internet claim, a peculiar relationship between Bush and the Greening Earth Society, which produced the dubious data and endorses the view that more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – and the global warming it would produce – are good for the earth.

Bush’s Internet energy figure could be traced to a 1999 study entitled “The Internet Begins with Coal,” written by Mark Mills, president of Mills McCarthy & Associates Inc. Based on Mills’s calculations, the study stated, “The electricity appetite of the equipment on the Internet has grown from essentially nothing 10 years ago to 8 percent of the total U.S. electricity consumption today.”

Though Bush cited Mills’s 8 percent figure as fact, the estimate was vigorously challenged by many energy experts who put the Internet’s demand at only about 1 percent of U.S. electricity, even before considering energy savings from such altered habits as shoppers buying online.

According to a summary of Mills’s report, his Internet project grew “out of an inquiry by Greening Earth Society president Fred Palmer.” Mills also was listed as a scientific adviser to the Greening Earth Society.

Loving Carbon Dioxide

In a report entitled “The CO2 Issue,” the Greening Earth Society painted a rosy picture of the global warming brought about by greenhouse gases: “Evidence of very modest nighttime winter warming, robust plant growth, rejuvenating forests and ample harvests abounds.”

Greening Earth Society president Palmer also was chief executive of the Western Fuels Association, a cooperative which delivered 22.7 million tons of coal to member utilities in 1999, according to its annual report.

In its 2000 annual report, Western Fuels condemned the “anti-coal activities” of the Clinton-Gore administration. The report also criticized efforts to address the problem of global warming through the international agreement, reached in Kyoto, Japan, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

While the national press corps took little note of where the Republican presidential candidate was getting his data, environmentalists were alarmed because Bush seemed to be embracing the coal industry’s propaganda. [For our coverage of this issue in 2000, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush, Coal & the Internet.”]

Environmentalists consider coal a major polluter of the land, water and air – as well as a principal source of greenhouse gas emissions. The Energy Information Administration of the U.S. Energy Department estimated that burning coal then released 36 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

Even in 2000, there was widespread agreement in the scientific community that sudden and drastic climate change would have a devastating impact on the earth’s environment. From rising sea levels to sudden changes in habitats for wildlife to more extreme weather patterns, droughts in some places, floods in others, the warning signs were clear.

Nevertheless, Bush chose to listen to industry-funded naysayers who downplayed the threat. His campaign’s position simply called for more “research into the causes and impact of global warming” while promoting only modest initiatives to develop alternative energy sources and energy efficiency.

Now, almost seven years later, with the scientific consensus on global warming even stronger and with U.S. allies pressing for action, Bush announced that he was prepared to take command of the issue.

“In recent years, science has deepened our understanding of climate change and opened new possibilities for confronting it,” Bush declared in a speech on May 31. “The United States takes this issue seriously.”

Bush said he would lead discussions with other industrialized nations on setting what would appear to be voluntary standards for reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the long term.

‘Aspirational Goals’

Bush’s White House environmental adviser, James L. Connaughton, said the countries would be called on to set “aspirational goals.”

“Each country will develop its own national strategies on a midterm basis in the next 10 to 20 years on where they want to take their efforts to improve energy security, reduce air pollution and also reduce greenhouse gases,” said Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

In a National Public Radio interview broadcast the same day, Bush’s NASA chief Griffin indicated that his own “aspirational goal” might be to do nothing as he voiced support for the Greening Earth Society’s view that global warming and the melting ice caps might turn out to be a positive.

“I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with,” Griffin said. “To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of earth’s climate today is the optimal climate. … I guess I would ask which human beings, where and when, are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now, is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that’s a rather arrogant position for people to take.”

Given the administration’s mixed messages and the fuzziness of Bush’s plan, many environmental groups reacted skeptically. Some critics suggested that Bush was doing little more than paying lip service to a grave problem.

Nevertheless, Bush’s speech earned respectable coverage as the lead story of the Washington Post on June 1, with the headline “Bush Signals Shift on Warming” and with critical reactions confined to the jump on an inside page.

The New York Times also led its editions with Bush’s speech, declaring “Bush Proposes Goal to Reduce Greenhouse Gases.” The Times did include some environmentalist criticism of Bush’s announcement on Page One, including concerns that Bush offered no clear indication of “what steps the United States would take to limit emissions over the next 10 to 20 years.”

Perhaps more timely coverage of where Bush was getting his information – back during Campaign 2000 – would have alerted more voters to the global risk that Bush represented when the other leading candidate was Al Gore.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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