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Six Years of Deceit

Inside the Bush administration's secret campaign to deny global warming and let polluters shape America's climate policy

Illustration by Mark Ulriksen
June 28, 2007

That's a big no. The president believes . . . that it should be the goal of policymakers to protect the American way of life. The American way of life is a blessed one.

– ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY
responding in May 2001 to whether Bush would ask Americans
to curb their first-in-the-world energy consumption

Earlier this year, the world's top climate scientists released a definitive report on global warming. It is now "unequivocal," they concluded, that the planet is heating up. Humans are directly responsible for the planetary heat wave, and only by taking immediate action can the world avert a climate catastrophe. Megadroughts, raging wildfires, decimated forests, dengue fever, legions of Katrinas – unless humans act now to curb our climate-warming pollution, warned the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, "we are in deep trouble."

You would think, in the wake of such stark and conclusive findings, that the White House would at least offer some small gesture to signal its concern about the impending crisis. It's not every day, after all, that the leading scientists from 120 nations come together and agree that the entire planet is about to go to hell. But the Bush administration has never felt bound by the reality-based nature of science – especially when it comes from international experts. So after the report became public in February, Vice President Dick Cheney took to the airwaves to offer his own, competing assessment of global warming.

The 10 Dumbest Things Ever Said About Global Warming

"We're going to see a big debate on it going forward," Cheney told ABC News, about "the extent to which it is part of a normal cycle versus the extent to which it's caused by man." What we know today, he added, is "not enough to just sort of run out and try to slap together some policy that's going to 'solve' the problem."

Even former White House insiders were shocked by the vice president's see-no-evil performance. "I don't see how he can say that with a straight face anymore," Christine Todd Whitman, who clashed privately with Cheney over climate policy during her tenure as the administration's first chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, tells Rolling Stone. "The consequences of climate change are very real and very negative, but Cheney is not convinced of that. He believes – not quite as much as Senator James Inhofe, that this is a 'hoax' – but that the Earth has been changing since it was formed and to say that climate change is caused by humans is incorrect."

Global Warming's Terrifying New Math

Cheney's statements were the latest move in the Bush administration's ongoing strategy to block federal action on global warming. It is no secret that industry-connected appointees within the White House have worked actively to distort the findings of federal climate scientists, playing down the threat of climate change. But a new investigation by  Rolling Stone reveals that those distortions were sanctioned at the highest levels of our government, in a policy formulated by the vice president, implemented by the White House Council on Environmental Quality and enforced by none other than Karl Rove. An examination of thousands of pages of internal documents that the White House has been forced to relinquish under the Freedom of Information Act – as well as interviews with more than a dozen current and former administration scientists and climate-policy officials – confirms that the White House has implemented an industry-formulated disinformation campaign designed to actively mislead the American public on global warming and to forestall limits on climate polluters.

"They've got a political clientele that does not want to be regulated," says Rick Piltz, a former Bush climate official who blew the whistle on White House censorship of global-warming documents in 2005. "Any honest discussion of the science would stimulate public pressure for a stronger policy. They're not stupid."

Bush's do-nothing policy on global warming began almost as soon as he took office. By pursuing a carefully orchestrated policy of delay, the White House has blocked even the most modest reforms and replaced them with token investments in futuristic solutions like hydrogen cars. "It's a charade," says Jeremy Symons, who represented the EPA on Cheney's energy task force, the industry-studded group that met in secret to craft the administration's energy policy. "They have a single-minded determination to do nothing – while making it look like they are doing something."

It's now almost impossible to fathom that back in 2000, after then-candidate Bush vowed to place caps on carbon pollution, top climate scientists believed he was just the man to take action on global warming. "It looked like we could finally get beyond the fray that had consumed the Clinton administration," recalls James McCarthy, a Harvard climate scientist who co-chaired the previous report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which gaveled down the very day Bush was inaugurated in 2001.

Even at that point, the science was in. The U.N. panel linked "most of the warming observed over the last fifty years" to "human activities." That judgment aligned with the National Assessment on climate change, a landmark federal report commissioned by Bush's father in 1990 and completed just before Bush was elected in 2000. The assessment projected dire impacts from global warming – from the extinction of maple trees in New England to a catastrophic loss of snowpack in California. "If we do nothing," McCarthy says, "the lack of water in California will force a mass exodus."

But those who were expecting a Nixon-to-China moment from Bush on climate weren't counting on the influence of the vice president and his industrial patrons. In March 2001, Whitman traveled to Italy for climate talks with European allies. She affirmed Bush's commitment to regulating greenhouse gases – a position she had vetted with Condoleezza Rice and Chief of Staff Andy Card. But what Whitman didn't grasp was that when it came to climate, the president was largely irrelevant.

Whitman should have had her doubts. Prior to joining the Cabinet, she sought personal assurance from Bush that the EPA would be able to call its own shots without deferring to the CEQ – the Council on Environmental Quality, a policy arm of the White House. As Whitman recalls it, Bush made no effort to mask his bureaucratic ignorance. "What's CEQ?" he asked blankly.

Cheney took full advantage of the president's cluelessness, bringing the CEQ into his own portfolio. "The environment and energy issues were really turned over to him from the beginning," Whitman says. The CEQ became Cheney's shadow EPA, with industry calling the shots. To head up the council, Cheney installed James Connaughton, a former lobbyist for industrial polluters, who once worked to help General Electric and ARCO skirt responsibility for their Superfund waste sites.

Industry swiftly took advantage of its new friend in the White House. In a fax sent to the CEQ on February 6th, 2001 – two weeks after Bush took office – ExxonMobil's top lobbyist, Randy Randol, demanded a housecleaning of the scientists in charge of studying global warming. Exxon urged CEQ to dump Robert Watson, who chaired the IPCC, along with Rosina Bierbaum and Mike MacCracken, who had coordinated the National Assessment.

Exxon's wish was the CEQ's command. According to an internal e-mail obtained by Rolling Stone, Connaughton's first order of business – even before his nomination was made public – was to write his White House colleagues-to-be from his law firm of Sidley & Austin. He echoed Exxon's call that Bierbaum, the acting director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, be "dealt." In the end, each of the scientists on Exxon's hit list was replaced. "It was clear there was a strong lobby and activity against me by some in the energy industry – especially ExxonMobil," says Watson.

A month after Exxon's fax, Whitman got her first sign that the EPA was no longer in charge of climate policy. "When I made the statement in Italy that something might happen on CO2," she says, "the utility industry got really engaged, and all of that caused a rethink." In a move Cheney is suspected of engineering, conservative senators Jesse Helms, Chuck Hagel and Larry Craig wrote the White House on March 6th seeking a "clarification" of the president's policy.

Two days later, the climate "rethink" was laid out in a memo by a team of advisers loyal to Cheney – two of whom, Andrew Lundquist and Karen Knutson, would go on to lead the vice president's energy task force. The memo – provided to Rolling Stone by a former administration official – concluded that Bush's campaign promise to regulate CO2 "did not fully reflect the president's position" and that "it would be premature at this time to propose any specific policy or approach aimed at addressing global warming." The authors dismissed both the IPCC and the National Assessment, writing that "the current state of scientific knowledge about causes of and solutions to global warming is inconclusive and . . . must await further scientific inquiry."

When Whitman heard that Bush was wavering on warming, she "broke through the palace guard," as the president had urged her to do, and marched into the Oval Office. "I wanted to tell him that there were ways to call for a cap on carbon that wouldn't hamstring the economy," she says, "and that it was vitally important we not be seen as ignoring the issue of climate change." But before Whitman could even present her case, the president cut her off. "It was clear the decision had already been made," she says.

As a dumbstruck Whitman walked out of the Oval Office, she bumped into the true Decider. There was Cheney, collecting the envelope from a secretary that contained Bush's "clarification" on climate-warming pollution – which he was on his way to deliver, in person, to his allies in the Senate.

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