In an hour-long debate in the ARCO Forum on April 11, two presidential environmental advisers – one currently in the Bush administration, the other previously in the Clinton administration – politely squared off on several controversial environmental issues. Among them: the urgency of human-induced global climate change, the need for increased conservation measures, and the eco-philosophy of President Bush that has left many seeing red, not green.
“It’s my job to be the provocateur,” said Rosina Bierbaum, a senior scientific adviser to the Clinton administration on environmental research and development and current dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan. “It’s important to look at the big picture. Levels of CO2 emissions are higher today than they’ve ever been. The next 100 years – not just the short term – are incredibly important.”
“Of course, we all recognize the seriousness of climate change – the science has gotten us to know that we must commit money and brain power to make change,” said James Connaughton, chairperson of the White House Council for Environmental Quality, an advisory agency to the president. “That commitment started in the first Bush administration, continued under Clinton, and has been unprecedented in our administration. No one comes even close to the United States.”
Questioned about recent statements by Vice President Dick Cheney and Republican Sen. Trent Lott that the American nature to think, act, and buy “big” needs to be respected, Connaughton, a former corporate lobbyist, said that while the administration was committed to conservation efforts, it was up to consumers to call the shots.
When asked to explain Bush’s decision last March to unilaterally withdraw the United States from the Kyoto agreement, which mandates reductions in the emission of greenhouse gases, Connaughton called the treaty “anti-growth” and denied that it was part of a trend of isolationism in the administration’s policymaking.
Connaughton added that although the administration did not agree with Kyoto, it takes global climate change seriously and has set forth a set of policies that are more multilateral. “We haven’t pulled back. … Serious Cabinet-level time is being committed.”
Bierbaum countered that if the United States had agreed to Kyoto, the country would be moving toward a 7 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below the 1990 level target.
“Instead, by not agreeing, we’ll be 30 percent above that level,” she said. “The goal of government has to be visionary. The journey of a thousand miles has to start with the first step. That’s what Kyoto was supposed to be.”