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Bush finally warms to warming

For years, President Bush bristled privately at what he considered sky-is-falling alarmism by the liberal, elitist Hollywood crowd over climate change. But ever so gradually, friends and advisers say, his views have evolved. Now Bush bristles not at the Hollywood types but at the notion that he does not care.
Image: U.S. President George W. Bush speaks at the Major Economies Meeting on Energy Security and Climate Change at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C.
President Bush speaks at the Major Economies Meeting on Energy Security and Climate Change at the State Department in Washington on Sept. 28.Matthew Cavanaugh / EPA
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

People find all sorts of ways to lobby President Bush. Sometimes it comes in the form of a handwritten note slipped into his hand during a bill-signing ceremony.

Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) tried that last week when Bush signed energy legislation that will curb greenhouse gases. "Congratulations and good work," Carper recalled writing. "By the way, Joe Lieberman and John Warner have a very good global warming bill that needs your support and you ought to support it."

Bush tucked the note into his pocket and promised to read it later. Carper hoped he would find it at the end of the day when he slipped his suit off. No one knows what effect such a note might have, but it was just one more small foray in a battle for Bush's attention that has been raging for years, one in which European leaders, American governors, corporate executives, evangelical preachers and key lawmakers have pressed him to lead what they see as a bid to save the planet.

For years, Bush bristled privately at what he considered sky-is-falling alarmism by the liberal, elitist Hollywood crowd. The clatter over climate change, according to friends and advisers, seemed to him more like a political agenda than a rational response to known facts. But ever so gradually, they say, Bush's views have evolved. He has found the science increasingly persuasive and believes more needs to be done, especially after a set of secret briefings last winter. A former aide said Bush's staff even developed models for a market-based cap on greenhouse emissions.

Now Bush bristles not at the Hollywood types but at the notion that he does not care. At an end-of-the-year news conference, he spent more time answering a question on climate change than any other inquiry, outlining his approach in detail to dispel the notion that he does not have one. "I take the issue seriously," he said, later repeating the phrase. "And we're developing a strategy that will deal with it, and an effective strategy."

The evolution has been evident over the past year. Bush cited the danger of climate change in his State of the Union address for the first time, proposed a plan to cut gasoline consumption and, by extension, greenhouse gases, and convened a conference of major world polluters to start crafting an international accord to follow the Kyoto Protocol. He even invited former vice president Al Gore for a 40-minute talk about global warming.

Many environmentalists dismiss this as cover for a do-nothing policy. Bush still rejects the one measure that they, and even many Republican corporate leaders, consider vital to reversing warming trends — a mandatory cap on carbon emissions. His negotiators infuriated counterparts at this month's talks in Bali by resisting such a move. And just hours after Bush signed the energy bill, the administration invalidated an effort by California and 17 other states to impose tougher tailpipe emission rules, saying it makes more sense to have a single national policy.

"There's no question the profile has changed in a pretty dramatic way," said Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and a leader of a coalition of corporations and nonprofit groups called the United States Climate Action Partnership, which has been lobbying Bush. "But the policy prescriptions haven't changed at all."

The coming year offers a final test of whether Bush is willing to move beyond the policies of the past seven years and embrace more aggressive measures, including a mandatory limit on carbon emissions with pollution credits that can be bought and sold — a system known as cap-and-trade. If presented such legislation by Sens. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Warner (R-Va.), supporters hope, Bush might sign it.

"They are more engaged in thinking about this in a way they were not before," said Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense, an advocacy group, who talks with White House officials. "That leads me to think things are still fluid there. The current public position is not what it needs to be, but I don't have the sense that it's cemented into place."

Bush's attention comes at a time when he and top advisers feel better about his presidency, confident they have turned a corner after two years of political setbacks and can now focus on reformulating his legacy. Heading into his final year, Bush has turned to big, bracing challenges abroad, most notably finding Middle East peace and forging a consensus on climate change. If global warming turns out to be a defining issue of this generation, advisers said, Bush does not want to be remembered as a roadblock.

"As you draw toward the end of an eight-year term, it's human nature to try to look forward and then backward — look into the future and then back at the past and think about how it looks," said a former Bush adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "You could conclude, as this administration has, that you want to be seen ultimately as having evolved and opened some doors and maybe started a glide path to the next administration."

'Nobody ever believes it'
Among those who trekked to Texas while Bush prepared to run for president in 2000 was Krupp, who has been a pioneer in collaborating with business to forge market-based solutions to pollution. During a 1 1/2 -hour discussion at the governor's mansion, Krupp described working with Bush's father on sulfur dioxide emission trading and said a similar system would make sense with carbon dioxide. "He said if we were to go ahead with regulation, that is how we would do it," Krupp recalled. "But the 'if' was a big if."

Just how big became clear after Bush took office. Amid rolling blackouts in California, Vice President Cheney pushed Bush to abandon a campaign pledge to impose mandatory reductions on carbon emissions from power plants. Summoned to the Oval Office in March 2001, Christine Todd Whitman, then head of the Environmental Protection Agency, braced to argue, but Bush had made up his mind. As she left, she saw Cheney picking up a letter already signed by Bush announcing the decision.

Citing economic costs and exemptions for developing nations such as China, Bush then repudiated the Kyoto Protocol curbing greenhouse gases — not a particularly radical departure since the Senate had made clear it would not be ratified, but a move that cemented the impression of a president uninterested in working with the world. Less noticed was his June 2001 speech vowing to fight climate change in other ways, an address aides point to as proof he always took the issue seriously. "I usually carry a copy of that speech around with me," said John H. Marburger III, Bush's science adviser, "because nobody ever believes it."

Aides say Bush has done more on climate change than he gets credit for. Beyond signing higher fuel efficiency standards into law last week, he has invested $37 billion in research into alternative fuels and other technology, promoted construction of new nuclear plants that do not emit greenhouse gases, and moved to require cleaner appliances and building codes. "We're actually doing it in big bite-sized pieces," said James L. Connaughton, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

But the administration over the years has also appeared intent on minimizing the existence of global warming, or at least the human contribution to it. Government scientists were allowed to talk to reporters only if cleared by the White House. Testimony and op-ed columns were edited to change definitive words such as "is" to hedging terms such as "may," or even to excise whole sections.

And more aggressive measures were consistently rejected during closed-door meetings. "A few of us would suggest something like 'How about we seize the initiative and announce something big on climate change?' " said a former White House official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. "These suggestions invariably didn't make the cut."

'There really was an evolution'
By 2006, though, something had begun to change. A host of governors, including Republicans such as California's Arnold Schwarzenegger, moved to impose their own plans to curb greenhouse gases. Major corporations, nervous about a patchwork-quilt approach, started agitating for a single national policy. Even some evangelical leaders, the backbone of the Republican coalition, joined the cause.

Sen. Tom Carper is among those who have used every passing encounter to lobby Bush for stronger action to stop climate change. A former Delaware governor, he has known Bush since their days at National Governors Association meetings together. In February 2006, Bush invited Carper and his wife to a small dinner with the visiting king of Jordan at the White House. During a break, Carper got Bush alone.

"That was the first time I sensed a shift in his view of warming, less inclined to be dismissive," Carper recalled. "I said, 'Mr. President, the science is irrefutable. There's a way to reduce this threat that carbon dioxide poses that doesn't put us in a tailspin, that harnesses economic forces and is fair to consumers, and we ought to do it.' The thing that I was struck by is not anything that he said, but that he listened."

Bush seemed to be moving along with elements of his party. During a private meeting with historians to talk about various issues a few months later, according to a person in the room, Bush confided that while he still thought Kyoto was fundamentally flawed, he regretted the manner in which he repudiated it — too abrupt, too defiant and too negative without offering an alternative. Bush also tapped as Treasury secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., Goldman Sachs's chief executive and a committed environmentalist.

Krupp saw Bush in the same period at an environmental documentary screening at the White House. "He was definitely in a different place," Krupp said. "He was saying, 'Just because I didn't go forward with Kyoto doesn't mean I don't want to do something.' That's when I detected there really was an evolution going on."

Aides detected it, too. Drafting a new National Security Strategy that spring, officials wrote a chapter on global threats such as climate change. "Merely expressing our opposition to Kyoto wasn't sufficient. There should be a framework for something more," said Peter D. Feaver, a National Security Council staffer who led the drafting. "By that point, the evolution of thinking was underway. I don't remember anyone pushing back."

'Put a foot forward'
By the end of last year, Bush was pushed to shift more publicly by a confluence of factors, the election of a Democratic Congress, the beginning of U.N. discussion about what to do after Kyoto expires in 2012 and pressure from Bush allies such as Germany's Angela Merkel and Britain's Tony Blair.

Business figures, led by former Exxon Mobil executive Randy Randol, launched what lobbyist Michael McKenna called a "soft lobbying campaign" to prod the White House to address climate change, if for no other reason than that a Bush plan would be less onerous on industry than one written by the Europeans or by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). "We couldn't fight something with nothing," said the former Bush adviser. "We had to have something."

National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley began thinking ahead to the next Group of Eight (G-8) meeting, to be hosted by Merkel in Heiligendamm in summer 2007 and sure to be another pressure session on global warming. "He hated this every year," a senior official said of Hadley. Bush was never "in the driver's seat because we were always responding."

Bush was eager to change the G-8 dynamics. "Going into that," the former adviser said, "he wanted a strategy not just for that meeting but 'How is this going to play out for the rest of my term? I want to put some initiatives out. I want to put a foot forward.' "

White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and other aides arranged a series of climate-change briefings for Bush last winter, bringing in government experts to talk about the state of the science, what had changed and why. "The science has firmed up in his mind quite a bit, just as it has for a lot of people," the former adviser said.

The administration even developed models for mandatory limits on carbon emissions for discussion purposes. "We gamed out what a hard cap-and-trade system would look like," the former adviser said. "Is there a way to do cap-and-trade that is economically responsible? Probably so." But the models studied by Bush did not amount to a formal proposal. "It never got to that point," the adviser said.

Instead, the White House came up with a plan that Bush outlined in his State of the Union address: to reduce gasoline consumption through increased use of alternative fuels and fuel efficiency for passenger vehicles, ideas eventually incorporated into the energy bill Bush signed this month. Presidential counselor Dan Bartlett pushed to make sure the speech included an unambiguous recognition of climate change, the first ever in a State of the Union. Addressing the nation, Bush said his plan "will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change."

'Totally misjudged the situation'
The next morning, Bush visited a DuPont research center in Delaware, bringing along Carper, who used the flight back to press again. "There's a parade that's forming here to address climate change," he recalled telling Bush. "You have the opportunity to watch the parade or lead the parade, and with all due respect, Mr. President, you need to lead the parade."

Among those in the parade was DuPont, the chemical giant. The company had joined eight other major corporations, including Alcoa, BP America, General Electric and PG&E, and four nonprofit groups, including the Pew Center, to form a coalition called the United States Climate Action Partnership. The day before the State of the Union, the group called on Bush to support a cap-and-trade system.

The parade kept growing. Soon it would include some in black robes on the Supreme Court, which ruled in April that the Bush administration was wrong to say that greenhouse gases could not be regulated under the Clean Air Act. And it would include Hadley's daughter's high school classmates, who grilled him during a speech this spring. "Hadley came back and remarked on how young people are engaged on it," Feaver recalled. The encounter reaffirmed Hadley's belief that "we have a positive story to tell. We don't have to merely play defense."

With Hadley's encouragement, Bush gave a speech in May declaring that he would lead an effort to find a post-Kyoto framework, one that would include China, India and other developing nations exempted from the protocol. Environmentalists suspected an effort to undercut U.N.-sponsored talks, but Bush at least had something to tell Merkel at the G-8 in Heiligendamm. She came away buoyed.

But her hopes would soon be dashed. In September, Bush hosted a meeting of the world's largest economies to discuss the way forward. He offered no major new policies, instead advocating that each nation set a nonbinding goal. "At the end of that meeting, it was the administration that was isolated," Claussen said. "They totally misjudged the situation. They thought the developing countries that were there would support their point of view. They didn't."

Merkel flew last month to Texas, where Bush hosted her for dinner at his Crawford ranch and told her he had no plans to change his policies, according to people briefed on the talk. She left disappointed.

'Ready for the next step'
As this month's U.N. meeting in Bali was approaching, a fierce debate broke out over who would lead the U.S. delegation. The White House wanted Connaughton, Bush's environmental adviser, to co-head it, but the State Department took umbrage at what it deemed a breach of protocol.

After a late night at Camp David planning the Middle East conference in Annapolis, sources said, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Bolten at the White House. Bolten left the decision to a deputy national security adviser. The dispute dragged on for days until the White House agreed that Undersecretary of State Paula J. Dobriansky would lead the delegation while Connaughton would "join in leading" some sessions.

The spat over place cards underscored a broader tension over what to do next. Connaughton wanted to go to Bali and emphasize the U.S.-led process as the route to a post-Kyoto agreement, in effect snubbing the United Nations, the sources said. Dobriansky "thinks this is frankly nuts," said an associate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. She insisted that the U.S. process had to be cast as part of the U.N. negotiations, not as separate.

Dobriansky wanted to use Bali to signal willingness to go beyond voluntary measures. "It just got shot down vociferously," the associate said shortly afterward. "She's very frustrated, very angry." In the end, though, Dobriansky won permission to tell Bali delegates that all options are on the table, presumably including mandatory limits.

Once in Bali, the U.S. delegation fought efforts to name explicit emissions targets, calling such a move premature at the start of a two-year negotiation. That triggered an angry torrent of grievances, and Dobriansky was booed and hissed. Eventually, the delegates agreed to call on both developed and developing nations to make measurable but unspecified cuts in greenhouse gases.

With just a year left for Bush, the issue is heading down parallel domestic and international tracks. Bush will reconvene officials from major polluting nations in Hawaii next month, and the Senate is to take up a global warming bill in the spring. Some lawmakers said they have picked up hints from Bush aides that he might sign a bipartisan cap-and-trade bill with a reasonable timetable and economic safeguards.

"The private conversations have been very encouraging," said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.). "We believe if we produce a bill that reflects our criteria, I personally think the president would sign it."

Connaughton had no comment on that but said in an interview that a new phase is beginning: "You ask, why now? Well, the convergence has finally happened, both internally and externally. Everybody's ready for the next step."

The question is what it will be.