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The president's new clothes

About the author
Caspar Henderson was openDemocracy's Globalisation Editor from 2002 to 2005. He is an award-winning writer and journalist on environmental affairs.

The United States president's state of the union address is a highpoint in American political theatre, and now the world's calendar. Modelled as it is after the British monarch's speech from the throne, its imperial form has proven particularly suitable for a man who likes to define himself by bold decisions, seeking out evildoers wherever they are, and bringing freedom to Iraq.

As befits a good drama, we start with a moment of crisis. Opinion polls indicate that two-thirds of Americans disapprove of the job the president is doing. This makes him more unpopular than any other president in the last fifty years, except for Richard M Nixon just before he resigned. Internationally Bush's rating is matched by only one other major leader with such sweeping executive powers, Tony Blair (Vladimir Putin, by contrast, scores over 70%).

On Bush's watch his country's international reputation is at a new low. Could our hero, who still has more than 700 days in power, prove even at this late hour that he is a born-again comeback kid?

Caspar Henderson was openDemocracy's globalisation editor from 2002 to mid-2005. He is an award-winning writer and journalist on environmental affairs. Caspar has also worked as a consultant on issues in energy, water, regulation, technology, human rights, economics and the environment. He writes an occasional blog called JebIn08

Also by Caspar Henderson in openDemocracy:

"Globolog, a weekly column embracing the earth: its survival, conflicts, prospects" (October 2002 – June 2004)

"A Pacific odyssey"
(16 September 2004)

"The politics of climate change: a debate guide" (9 June 2005)

"The metamorphosis of oil?"
(9 January 2006)

The next great goal

There was some surprise when in his 2006 address this former oil man told his country it should break its addiction to oil, and much speculation that this year he would extend the agenda to an integrated energy and environment strategy. The world waited for the leader of the free world to swap the aviator gear in which he declared "mission accomplished" in Iraq in 2003 for something like the woolly jumper worn by the energy-conserving Jimmy Carter for his "moral equivalent of war".

On 27 December 2006 came a tantalising hint in the form of official White House acknowledgement that global warming was a threat to wildlife in the Arctic (a "first, they came for the polar bears" moment).

In the event, the president put healthcare at the top of his agenda, focused much of his speech on what he calls a "new strategy" in Iraq, and finished with an emphasis on the heroism of ordinary Americans. The "serious challenge of global climate change" got one mention in the context energy technologies that would help Americans be "better stewards of the environment".

His "great goal" is for the US to reduce gasoline usage by 20% over the next ten years ("twenty in ten"), which he said would allow the country to cut imports by the equivalent of three-quarters of all the oil the country imports from the middle east. To reach this goal, he said, the US must increase the supply of alternative fuels by setting a mandatory fuels standard to require 35 billion gallons of renewable and alterative fuels in 2017.

Four concerns

Does it add up to anything new and substantial - first as a measure to increase US energy independence, and second as a contribution to the challenge of global warming?

Both Republicans and Democrats have agreed on the vital importance of energy independence ever since oil prices quadrupled in the early 1970s and Richard Nixon launched "Project Independence". In 1973, oil imports were 35% of US petroleum supplies. Imports contributed 58% when George W Bush came into office. In 2006, imports accounted for about 66% of the more than 140 billion gallons consumed in the US.

With domestic stocks of petroleum dwindling, biofuels such as ethanol from America's farmlands - among the most productive in the world - seem like an obvious answer. But there are at least four grounds for concern:

  • methods of production that are currently viable, such as corn to ethanol, achieve a "net energy value" that is only narrowly positive - that is, at best, you only get out 20 to 30% more energy than you put in
  • these methods tend to require subsidies (as Senator John McCain puts it: "Plain and simple, the ethanol programme is highway robbery perpetrated on the American public by Congress")
  • the new frontier cellulosic ethanol remains a largely unproven technology. It may well have potential - otherwise commercial investors like Vinod Khosla would not champion it - but will government loans of $2bn over ten years (as much as the US military burns in Iraq every week) be sufficient to tip the balance?
  • even if the alternative fuels that are produced substitute only for imports and not domestic gasoline production, the US may still be importing around half of its needs.

All this makes it likely that even if the US succeeds in reducing conventional gasoline consumption by a fifth over ten years, greenhouse-gas emissions will still be continuing to rise at a time when they need to start coming down.

A slow tipping-point

The Financial Times commentator Gideon Rachman says that the hallmark of a successful ideological revolution is that it swiftly makes party-political labels irrelevant. He thinks this has happened with global warming. Certainly, some of the most ambitious measures in the US so far to address the challenge are coming from Republicans - including a 70% reduction in California's emissions by 2050 from Governor Schwarzenegger, and a bill from Senator Ted Stevens that would require cars to run at an average of forty miles per gallon within ten years.

Such initiatives, combined with corporate pressure, are said to be pushing Washington towards a tipping-point. If so, it has taken its time; as long ago as June 2005, the US Senate passed a resolution calling for a "comprehensive and effective national program of mandatory, market-based limits and incentives on emissions of greenhouse gases that slow, stop, and reverse the growth of such "emissions".

Certainly, the proposals coming out of both houses of Congress are more ambitious than anything articulated by the Bush administration. But will they be adequate to the challenge of global warming? Next week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change publishes its fourth assessment report. Kevin E Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research reminded the New York Times that "you can't say what the I.P.C.C. says until it says it"; but the indications are that it will strengthen even further the case for rapid action to reduce global emissions.

Is the US, or any other nation or group of nations, up to the challenge? David Archer, a computational ocean chemist at the University of Chicago, has borrowed from Thomas Jefferson and Richard Feynman to coin a hybrid phrase: "I tremble for humanity when I reflect that nature cannot be fooled".

The good news is that there are fewer in the US Congress listening to the likes of the not-so-admirable Michael Crichton, a science-fiction writer who says global warming is a hoax, and has also written of the imminent takeover of the world economy by the Japanese and the murderous talking apes of the lost city of Zinj.

In Washington - outside the White House - and elsewhere, cap-and-trade systems are widely seen as the only game in town. Whether or not this proves to be correct, what really matters is how soon and how quickly the world reduces its emissions. An analysis by David Doniger and others indicates that to stand a good chance of reducing the likelihood of global average temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius, the US can best play its part with a cap on emissions no later than 2010, reducing from that date onwards at an annual rate of no less than 1.5% to begin with and rising to 3.2% by 2030 (see "An Ambitious, Centrist Approach to Global Warming Leglislation", Science, 3 November 2006).

In light of past trends this is a demanding timetable. Whether it would be adequate, even if achieved, is open to debate. There are grounds for questioning whether a global average temperature rise of 2 degrees C would indeed be "safe". Abraham Lincoln's words in his 1862 address apply: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present... we must disenthral ourselves, and then we shall save our country."


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