“Hello Mr. President, I hope you will take action on climate change,” CSPW founder and George W. Bush White House climate change whistleblower Rick Piltz said politely but firmly to President Bush in the White House Rose Garden on a sunny morning in June 2001. The President was just about to make a much-anticipated statement on climate change. History is repeating itself today, but this time with the stakes raised as atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have now exceeded 400 ppm. Just as news of President Donald Trump’s intention to withdraw the US from the December 2015 Paris Agreement leaked yesterday morning, nearly 16 years ago today, those anxious to hear what President Bush had to say in 2001 about climate change action had already been tipped off that a withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol was eminent, and President Bush would refuse to send the signed treaty to the Senate for ratification. A well-established global warming trend had led to mounting concerns about climate change over the previous decade, and Piltz was one of millions of Americans who worried that gains made under President Clinton would be reversed or perhaps abandoned altogether by President Bush. Climate change had already become a partisan issue with nascent but promising bitterness, naturally embraced by liberals, generally dismissed summarily by conservatives.
By June 2001, Piltz had been a senior associate at the Coordination Office for the US Global Change Research Program for six years, responsible for editing and producing scientific reports written by federal climate scientists scattered over about a dozen agencies working on the problem. He was proud of the key role he had played in the production of the very first national assessment of climate change impacts across US regions and economic sectors, a comprehensive report to Congress and the public required by a 1990 bill signed into law by George Bush’s father. The 2000 National Assessment, officially released in the waning hours of Clinton’s second term, warned of dire climate consequences already discernible, measurable, and underway. President Bush had already taken active steps to deep-six the study; its message was too contrary to the oil-friendly nature of the new administration. This to say, Piltz very much wanted to know what George W. Bush had to say about climate change.
To his surprise (as we recall from conversations with Piltz) the new President responded: “I hope we can too.” Taken aback by the use of the word “I” rather than “we,” Piltz reported to friends and colleagues that he muttered to himself, perhaps even audibly, “But you are the president! You’re the one who is supposed to be able to do something!” Precisely.
And, do something he did, but quite the opposite of precisely what was needed to address the climate change threat honestly and meaningfully. In March 2001 he announced he would not send the Kyoto Protocol to the US Senate for ratification, which it may very well have voted to do. Moreover, the Rose Garden speech President Bush delivered that day removed any doubt that the new Bush-Cheney White House had already begun to spin the big lie about climate change, the lie we know so well we can recite it in our sleep: scientific uncertainties regarding global climate change are too great to make any policy decisions, especially those that might affect the US economy (read: the US fossil fuel-based energy economy). George W. Bush, the oil man from Texas (but really from Connecticut), had brought Halliburton executive Dick Cheney with him to the White House to serve as his V.P. and had handed out proverbial keys to White House back rooms to Big Oil executives, essentially invited to come and go as they pleased. How far have we come in 16 years? Climate action – meaning, a transformation away from carbon-intensive energy sources to cleaner, renewable sources of energy – should be proportional to scientific certainty and commensurate with the threat. Instead, President Trump has stated that he believes climate change is a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese (which doesn’t seem to qualify as a joke even if that’s what was intended) and today he gave up our nation’s seat at the table where life-and-death international climate change negotiations are taking place.
On that pleasant, late spring morning in 2001, no one could begin to suspect that these were the last few months of America’s pre-9/11 era, a time in US history marked in part by perceived innocence of the variety that believes terrorism is something that happened overseas — not to us. This period also predated warnings issued by US military leaders that unchecked global warming and disruptions in our climate system represent a serious threat-multiplier worldwide, and thus a serious risk to national security. In some respects, we have come a long way in 16 years.
Selected by the Supreme Court just months before, following a freak election marred by voting tallies too close to call and the infamous hanging chads in Florida, President Bush was operating under no clear mandate from the American people, and virtually no one knew what to expect from him in terms of domestic or foreign policy. He was, however, surrounding himself with a cadre of conservative operatives who embraced agendas completely absent from George Bush’s campaign rhetoric: for example, we later learned, a top priority was to invade and overtake Iraq, even much before weaponized commercial jets ripped a big chunk out of the Pentagon and took down New York City’s Twin Towers. 9/11 would change things forever, but no one in the Rose Garden that day in June could possibly have imagined such a future. It is also likely that not very many in the Rose Garden that day could imagine that severe drought would soon paralyze Texas and Oklahoma several years in a row, that massive floods would take hundreds of lives and destroy billions of dollars of property, that glaciers would recede, coral reefs would bleach and die off, or that extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy would bring New York City and much of New Jersey to its knees. It was hard to imagine in 2001 that climate change would be creating climate refugees worldwide in less time than it takes to raise a child to legal age. We are now well into a climate-disrupted future; we can’t change the mistakes of the past, but we can learn from them. We seem to have slid backwards, however, and regressed rather than progressed in our climate wisdom. Climate change isn’t a disaster like 9/11, it isn’t abrupt and immediate; rather it is a much slower-moving disaster, but it is even deadlier and more dangerous than one act of terrorism. It is an existential threat.
Those who were deeply disappointed by President Bush’s decision not to allow for US ratification of Kyoto and to lie by commission and omission regarding the nature and severity of the climate threat are deeply disappointed again today. Those who were not born yet or old enough to remember, like the 21 youth who are suing the US Government for failing to act on climate and endangering their future are possibly feeling despair. We cannot let this morally depraved, reprehensible, head-in-the-sand behavior continue: we must use the tools of democracy, what few we have left, to build new leaders and dig our way out of this hole. Climate activists everywhere are not taking “no” for an answer. This summer, with new energy and new team members, CSPW will be taking its own activism to new levels this year: we have new announcements coming to address this critical need.
CSPW Senior Climate Policy Analyst Anne Polansky has 30 years of experience in public policies relating to energy and the environment, with a strong focus on climate change and renewable energy. She is a former Professional Staff Member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.