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That Sinking Feeling November 17, 2008

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change.
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In April 2004, President Bush was visibly stumped when asked to name his biggest mistake since 9/11.  Last week, he was asked the same question again.  He is no longer speechless, but he still has no substantive answer – when pressed, he said he wished he’d phrased a few things more “artfully,” without naming a single action he regrets (video).  A certain president-elect may be able to think of a few.

I am referring, of course, to President-elect Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives.  Located off India’s southern coast, the Maldives is composed of 1,192 islets, about a quarter of which are inhabited.  It is also one of the island nations that will be the first victims of rising sea levels.

A resort in the Maldives. Limited-time offer...

A resort in the Maldives. Limited-time offer...

Sea levels have risen about 8 inches in the last century as a result of melting terrestrial ice and the thermal expansion of warming seawater.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the scientific authority on global warming, projects that sea levels could rise up to two feet higher by the year 2100.  That may not seem like much, but for a country whose highest point is 7.5 feet above the water (with most ground well below that), this is cause for concern.  Especially when you consider that after the 2004 earthquake that unleashed tsunamis around the Indian Ocean, 82 people died and the Maldives suffered $375 million in damage – when it was struck by a wave barely a meter high.

As anyone who’s ever tried to defend a sandcastle from the tide knows, the ocean is pretty difficult to stop and normally wins.  And Mr. Nasheed has apparently spent some time playing on his country’s vanishing world-class beaches.  In order to secure the future of his people, he recently announced that he will set aside a portion of the Maldives’ tourism revenue to establish a fund.  With this money, he plans to buy land in India, Sri Lanka or Australia as an “insurance policy” for the nearly 400,000 Maldivians should their country succumb to the effects of climate change.

Who is responsible for this climate crisis?  Many people (myself among them) say the United States.  Although it would be unfair to blame climate change solely on our current president, the Bush II administration has certainly contributed.  In 1988, George H. W. Bush said, “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect are forgetting about the White House effect.”  But he could not have imagined just how powerful that White House effect could be.  Or that it would be used to preserve the dangerous status quo.

For the last eight years, politics have unequivocally trumped science, even at the Environmental Protection Agency.  In 2001, Bush picked Philip A. Cooney to be his chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality.  Cooney, who had no scientific training and previously worked for the American Petroleum Institute (the oil industry’s main lobbying group), was soon discovered to have edited and removed sections of finalized government research to make climate change seem less serious.  Cooney resigned two days after his actions were exposed – and promptly took a job at Exxon. Sadly, this was not an isolated incident.

Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that White House officials consulted with Exxon for advice before Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol.  A House of Representatives committee report in 2007 found that the Bush administration has edited congressional testimony on climate science and key legal opinions, and kept scientists from talking to reporters.  And despite the unanimous recommendation of his advisers, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson denied California’s waiver to implement higher vehicle emissions standards after reportedly being pressured by Bush himself.  This denial was completely unexpected and unsupported; EPA officials scrambled pitifully after the fact to assemble some sort of justification, which is currently under investigation.

But the most incredible story comes from Jason Burnett, a former associate deputy administrator of the EPA who resigned this summer.  In April 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases are a pollutant and as such must be regulated.  The following December, Burnett emailed a White House office the EPA’s proposed rule to limit emissions.  When officials heard he was sending that email, they called him to order him not to send it.  When he told them he already had, they actually demanded he recall the email (this can be done in some programs).  He refused.  In June, the New York Times discovered that because White House officials did not want to act on the information in the EPA email, they simply had never opened it.  They just left it in the inbox with the justification that they don’t have to act since they haven’t read it (The Daily Show reports).

This is the kind of administration I cannot wait to see leave.

Bush at the G8 Summit in Toyako.  As he left, he said "Goodbye from the world's biggest polluter" and then "punched the air while grinning widely."  Seriously.

Bush at the G8 Summit in Toyako. As he left, he said "Goodbye from the world's biggest polluter!" and, in the words of Britain's Telegraph, "punched the air while grinning widely." Seriously.

Climate change is real and largely our fault.  I don’t agree with all of President-elect Obama’s environmental policies, but I do look forward to having a leader who actually understands the threats we face and will treat them with the gravity that they deserve.  And just in time: neither the Maldives nor America can afford any more of the same.

A version of this post ran in The Chronicle at Duke University.

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