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President Bush's Hot Air

White Noise

By Erin B. Ashwell

I knew it was too good to be true. A former oil executive calling for reduced carbon dioxide emissions. A Republican candidate chastising the country to treat global warming seriously. The director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assuring other countries that the United States would combat greenhouse gas emissions. But then there was a letter from President George W. Bush to Senators Helms, Hagel, Craig and Roberts, saying "[W]e must be very careful not to take actions that could harm consumers. This is especially true given the incomplete state of scientific knowledge of the causes of, and solutions to, global climate change. . . ."

It confirmed my suspicions. Bush will not regulate carbon dioxide emissions. Republicans are well known for comparing government to the private sector. Indeed, The New York Times credited Bush with bringing a "corporate look" to the White House, and satirically christened Bush a "1950s CEO." So in an attempt to deal with my disappointment, I have tried to understand his decision from a business perspective. Yet even then the verdict of the man who is "restoring honesty and integrity" to the White House doesn't add up.

First, consider the problem of personnel--specifically, the newly confirmed director of the EPA, former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman. Whitman has been what Vice President Dick Cheney called a "good soldier," or, to avoid mixing metaphors, a loyal employee, and has made a point of talking up the administration's commitment to reducing carbon dioxide. Employees who go to bat for their bosses are a business asset. Yet Bush has seriously compromised the credibility of Whitman by opening her decisions to reversal by the president. When trying to seek compliance from industry on environmental regulations, Whitman will always be vulnerable, facing the prospect of an endless stream of executives talking to Bush rather than her.

From a personnel viewpoint then, Bush's reversal seems to be questionable business practice. Yet in our competitive capitalist society it is sometimes worthwhile for employers to undercut their employees. I'm not referring to Chainsaw Al. Bush cites Department of Energy statistics about the increased cost of electricity to consumers as his reasoning for deciding not to regulate emissions, judging (I would assume) that the cost of the energy policy would be greater than the cost of undercutting his appointee.

Saving American citizens money is a worthwhile motive. Yet does businessman Bush miss the point? The goal of controls on carbon dioxide emissions is to decrease the amount of carbon dioxide released. As the cost of something increases, the demand for that same good decreases. As electricity becomes more expensive we will shift sources of power, incurring costs but also stopping climate change, the melting of the polar ice caps, etc.

Moreover, a good businessperson considers all possible costs when making a decision. While Bush considers the costs of switching forms of power or increased electricity bills, he pays little attention to the costs of global warming.

The costs of global warming are difficult to measure, but some isolated figures help to give an idea of the costs we are facing. The EPA's website shows, for example, that in my home state of Virginia, protecting coastal land from rising ocean levels (due to melting polar ice caps) will cost between $200 million to $1.2 billion. In Bush's home state of Texas, a 20-inch rise in sea level is estimated to coast between $4.2-$12.8 billion by 2100. And in our very own Massachusetts, the sea rise may cost from $490 million to $2.6 billion.

This is the cost of buying sand. Businessmen should carefully consider the prospect of having their business under water--not to other mention expenses associated with decreases in agricultural yields, increases in heat-related illnesses and beach-front property in the mountains.

Yet there is one line of reasoning that could save Bush's business sense, if not saving the country. Bush claims that there is no complete consensus on the causes and solutions of global warming. Studies show that somewhere lives the one out of three climate scientists who will not state a 90 percent certainty of global warming. (Never mind the fact that nearly all state that they are 50 percent sure there is global warming.) Bush gambles on that one-third of a chance that global warming is not real, that it will all go away.

Taking risks in business may lead to higher profit. But it often leads to bankruptcy. Bush's business-like reasoning risks sending world ecology to disaster. No matter how much Bush or I admire the private sector, the United States of America is not a company. Bush's sworn duty is not to preserve the power bills of the American people, but to safeguard the nation. As a result, Bush's decision to leave companies free rein with regards to carbon dioxide emissions is a short-term political judgment--a judgment that is ultimately only disappointing.

Erin B. Ashwell '02 is a government concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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