Earth Trends by Martin Khor


Last Friday, American President George Bush unveiled his energy plan, which was immediately condemned by friends and foes alike for being harmful to the global environment.  Specifically, it will lead to further emissions of the polluting gases that cause global warming, as well as encourage nuclear energy.  Coming so soon after the US pullout from the Kyoto protocol, this marks a disaster for global efforts to reverse climate change.  Bush is also opening himself to criticism that his plan confirms suspicions that his Presidency and policies are dominated by cronyism, especially with the energy companies.


First, it was the announcement that the United States would pull out of the Kyoto protocol on climate change.

Now, there is the unveiling of a new energy plan by American President George Bush, aimed at increasing coal and oil output, which in turn will add to emissions of polluting gases that contribute to global warming.

These two inter-connected developments are earning the US great unpopularity, to say the least.

Even is traditional allies, the European countries, are non-plussed and outraged at such irresponsibility on the part of the world's lone superpower.

Global warming is now almost universally accepted as perhaps the gravest threat to Earth's survival.  "Greehouse gases" such as carbon dioxide, pumped into the atmosphere by industries and vehicles using fossil fuels (such as oil and coal), are causing the world's temperature to rise significantly.

This threatens to melt the arctic ice, and increase the level of sea water, which can flood cities and coastal areas and even whole island states.  The change in climate can also cause disruption to agriculture, forests, marine life, rainfall, and make life inhospitable or unlivable in many parts of the world, in the next several decades.

The signs of the melting of arctic ice, of significant changes in climate, and of ecological disturbance and social disruption have increased in recent years, adding to the urgency felt to resolve the looming crisis.

The Kyoto protocol of the Climate Change Convention was the centre piece of the action.   Developed countries agreed to begin reducing their emission of poisonous gases, or least to reduce the growth rate of emissions, by certain percentages.   Later on, developing countries might join in, after being satisfied that the major countries causing the problem are sincere in reducing and changing their energy use.

The reversal of trend agreed to in Kyoto would still be much too little and too late to stop the peril.  But it would at least mark that the rich countries recognise the problem and are willing to begin some action.

During the election campaign, Bush said he would take climate change seriously but one of his first acts in office was to shock the world by announcing the US did not believe in the Kyoto protocol.

As the chief emitter of Greehouse gases, the withdrawal of US commitment to the protocol has set back the global anti-global warming action schedule.

And this threatens Earth's survival as there is little time left to prevent the looming catastrophes.

This background is the context for the blunt statement last Friday by the Swedish Environment Minister Kjell Larsson (whose country now chairs the European Union), that the US rejection of the Kyoto protocol is "the most dangerous development for the future."

The French Finance Minister Laurent Fabius added that "the world's leading power cannot disengage from the planet's problems." 

They were both speaking at a high-powered meeting of Ministers of the 30-member "rich countries' club,"  the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Because they feel so let down, the other developed countries did not vote the US as one of their representatives to two United Nations bodies, including the Commission on Human Rights, when elections took place earlier this month.  This failure to be elected has outraged the US Congress, but it reflects how the US has lost goodwill not only among developing countries (many of which have long considered it as a bully) but also among its closest allies.

Last week President Bush landed his country into hotter soup with his energy plan.  Almost all other developed countries are now committed to phase out the use of fossil fuels and through using alternative and more eco-friendly energy, precisely as part of the plan to combat Greenhouse gases and climate change.

Bush's energy plan does the opposite.  It loosens regulations on oil and gas exploration, a move designed to allow exploration and extraction in Alaska, the Rocky Mountains, the Gulf Coast and even the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The energy plan also urges the revision or reinterpretation of the Clean Air Act that requires long government review of any modifications of power plants that affect their emissions.  Lawsuits brought by the Clinton administration against companies ignoring that law may also be reviewed.

Moreover the plan also encourages the use of nuclear energy, which is widely regarded as anti-environmental.  It calls for new evaluation of nuclear reprocessing, aimed at recovering plutonium from nuclear fuel, a process that is dirty and carries the threat of radioactive releases.

The Bush energy plan has been criticised by in the US by Democrats for increasing air pollution and opening pristine federal land to development, and condemned by environmental groups.

Outside the US, criticisms are also pouring in.  The Fiji-based Pacific Concerns Resources Centre (PCRC), representing many NGOs in the Pacific islands, called the Bush plan a crime, and asked that the US be brought before an international justice system.

"If it comes to the crunch in climate change, some communitgies and cultures here will cease to exist.  It is totally unjust,"  said Patrina Dumaru

of the PCRC.  The Pacific island states face sea erosion, more intense cyclones and some may sink below sea level if temperatures continue to rise due to global warming.

Dumaru was alarmed at Bush's plan to increase nuclear power use.  "If nuclear power output grows, they will look for nuclear waste dumps and I fear the place they will look at will be the Pacific," she said.  "We are tired of everything they dish out on us."

Why is Bush pushing for oil, coal and nuclear and against the Kyoto protocol in the face of scientific facts and world public opinion?

In announcing his energy plan, the President said the US needed to be less dependent on imports of foreign oil and energy supplies, so that it would not be vulnerable to foreign pressure.

However, a simpler and less noble reason is not difficult to find.  It is well known that Bush and key members of his administration are not only beholden to the energy industry and themselves come from it.

The Democrat Party leader in Congress, Richard Gephardt, put it this way:  "This is a plan mostly engineered for and by the energy companies.  They are in danger of only reinforcing the public opinion that they are closely aligned with the energy industry in what they are doing."

A report in the Asian Wall Street Journal (17 May) documents the links between key Administration personnel and the benefits the companies or industries they are connected with will derive from the energy report:

** President Bush received US$2.8 million from oil, gas, mining and utility interests during the 2000 presidential campaign.  Overall these sectors gave US$64 million in 2000, with 75 percent going to Republicans.

** Vice President Dick Cheney, who headed the White House task force on the energy plan, earned over US$30 million in salary and stock in 2000 as chief executrive officer of Halliburton Company, an oil-field-services company that will benefit from looser regulations on refineries and pipelines in the energy report.

** White House chief of staff Andrew Card earned at least a half-million dollars each year to lobby for General Motors and other US auto makers.  Under the Bush plan, the auto industry will not have to improve fuel efficiency of their gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles and will profit from tax credits to consumers buying their hybrid gas-electric cars.

** Commerce Secretary Donald Evans was awarded a US$5.3 million retirement package when he retired as CEO of oil and gas company Tom Brown Inc., which should gain from the plan's emphasis on oil and gas exploration.

** At least 15 other officials who have been appointed or nominated have ties to the auto and energy industries. 

For example, the activist Environmental Working Group has circulated a memo to Congress on the work of the mining-industry lobbyist J. Steven Giles, who was nominated as deputy secretary of the Interior Department.

The memo is highly critical of his work on behalf of the coal industry.

A report of the Bush presidency when the administration was being formed noted that it was no longer necessary for the corporations (particularly the energy companies) to lobby the government, as they now formed the government.

When the history of cronyism is finally written, it will surely be noted that the country that most shrilly preaches others against having strong government-corporate links, is the one that has the most of such links, to the point where it is hard to distinguish anymore the line between government and corporations.

Such an observation is however not merely of academic interest, or of use to score points against the lone superpower.  Unfortunately, this cronyism at the heart of the Bush presidency can also cost the Earth its survival, as the process of global warming scores yet another victory over humanity's weak and unconvincing attempt to control it.