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Nixon to China, Bush to Kyoto?

Why should George W. Bush ratify the Kyoto Protocol in the wake of hurricane Katrina?

October 21, 2005

Why should George W. Bush ratify the Kyoto Protocol in the wake of hurricane Katrina?

President George W. Bush needs to go to Kyoto. If former president Richard Nixon was able to go on a trip to China, Mr. Bush should be able to go to Kyoto.

It is the only response to the New Orleans disaster that would be convincing. The damages already come to hundreds of billions of dollars. The costs of Kyoto to the U.S. economy, though real, pale before the cost of repeated Katrinas.

And that is the prospect presented by warming oceans, which strengthen tropical storms. Nearly all Americans have by now learned about this causal connection. Few believe any longer that the increase in extreme weather events is just coincidence.

Even in Washington, one can sense a change in mood in environmental-skeptic circles. Already, after the invasion of Iraq, high gas prices and concerns about subsidizing Islamic regimes led to green trends among conservative enviro-skeptics.

Katrina brought this trend to critical mass. People are ready for a change. Enviro-skeptics may not be pushing for Kyoto, but if their leader leads, they will follow. And their leader is George W. Bush.

The Bush Administration needs a dramatic gesture to show it is coping with the new scale of disaster but not by rebuilding New Orleans — something already widely seen as a mistake — but by addressing the sources of weather extremism.

The costs of prevention are great, and for a long time we can at best only slow the growth of the problem, but the costs are visibly greater if we go on not even trying to slow that growth and instead limit ourselves to consequence management.

Mr. Bush needs to go to Kyoto. He needs to say that, in face of the costs already incurred from a warming Gulf of Mexico, the United States is changing its policy on Kyoto. And announce a carefully calibrated gas tax to show he’s serious.

He might still want to say that Kyoto has to be modified, but should turn “modified” into a code word for strengthening not ignoring it. It is clear, for example, that the world needs increasing controls on developing country emissions.

It would be like President Ronald Reagan who, having denounced Strategic Arms Limitations Talks — a treaty between the United States and the former Soviet Union that froze a number of offensive weapons — came back to arms control by upping the ante on it with Strategic Arms Reductions Talks — a treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union that limited each other’s warhead supplies.

Mr. Bush would be able to deliver the Republican vote and with it the United States. He would lead an America that, despite previous bitter Republican opposition to Kyoto, would be basically united in supporting it.

He would thus act as the kind of leader Mr. Nixon proved to be when he led a unified United States on renewing relations with China despite previous sharp opposition to any such thing.

It is Mr. Bush’s nature to take such dramatic steps. In this he has less in common with his father, a fan of finesse, than with Mr. Nixon and Mr. Reagan. He can take a page from their book.

Mr. Nixon was the greatest tactical mind among Republican politicians of the last generation, Reagan the strongest strategist. They believed in doing the dramatic thing, reshuffling the whole deck when the cards have started coming up unplayable — as they have been for Bush after Katrina.

It was advice Mr. Nixon gave to former president George H.W. Bush when the latter was sinking politically. But George H.W. Bush preferred to stay inside his comfort zone — and drown.

George W. Bush is brasher. He enjoys hitting back. His father spoke of waiting and seeing, fearing to “make the wrong mistake.” But George W. Bush prefers to feel decisive. He likes to answer a big blow with a punch on the same scale.

He overran Afghanistan in response to 9/11. He likes policy reversals that match the scope of geopolitical change. He approached Russia to become an ally after 9/11 despite having run on an anti-Russia platform.

Going to Kyoto would be in character for him. He could present it that way — and avoid looking like a fraud.

He could, of course, just go on repeating slogans about how some scientists are unsure about whether global warming is real, or — the current line of retreat — whether humans are the cause of it, or at least whether humans are the main cause of it. Or that it’s all a long natural cycle, the planet was just as warm or warmer 10,000 years ago.

These slogans are beginning to look painfully irrelevant. But there was no New Orleans to be destroyed 10,000 years ago. Modern coastal cities and infrastructures and interdependencies were not around then. The hunter-gatherers could relocate relatively easily. Those who drowned were replaceable units, quickly forgotten.

If it were really true that the warming had entirely natural causes, we would respond to it as a threat from nature, just like avian flu or the asteroid threat. It is only in a non-logical polemical mode, a sort of inverted environmentalist fundamentalism, which people say, “The causes are natural so we shouldn’t do anything about it.”

The normal human response would be to go on a crash course to find technologies to cool back down the earth, stop nature from cooking us out, and keep the environment steady for the long term — steady enough to accommodate modern civilizations and populations.

In reality, of course, the human contributory causes are significant, whether or not they add up to 50% of the problem. There are things that can be done immediately to reduce them. In a normal frame of mind, we would be pursuing them now, alongside longer-term projects like technologies for cooling and stabilizing the planet.

The alternative is to dump more and more hundreds of billions into more and more repairs, in a pointless act of mimicking Sisyphean labor.

And to go to Iran and Venezuela, begging for more oil? Take a hard look at that option. Going to Kyoto is the easier way out.