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Getting Warmer? 

Published June 19, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

It's been a bad month for Earth dwellers concerned about global warming. Since early June the Bush administration has made a series of moves and missteps that have left utility corporations cheering — and environmentalists seething — over our nation’s response to what many believe to be the world’s single biggest ecological problem.

It began on a hopeful note when the Environmental Protection Agency joined the common-sense club by issuing a report to the United Nations acknowledging that global warming was, indeed, a reality and a problem. For a brief moment it seemed as if the U.S. was going to join the rest of the civilized world, which has not only acknowledged the problem but entered into agreements to address it.

But the hope didn’t last long. The EPA’s report was out of step with a Bush White House that has been chirping the corporate tune that global warming is a mere fantasy cooked up by starry-eyed Greens. And when the Bush brass realized the report was damaging their friends in the utility and energy corporations, they sent Bush himself out before the media to counter the EPA.

“I read the report put out by the bureaucracy,” Bush declared, with extra emphasis on “bureaucracy.” Then he gave his customary smirk, all but rolled his eyes, and effectively cut the legs out from under the EPA’s report.

The right wing cheered. The Wall Street Journal, in fact, ran a bruising editorial attacking EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman for what it called another attempt to “sandbag her boss.” “Whether it was sloppy language, a runaway EPA, or truly a change in position,” opined the Journal, “you’d think the Administration would know better than to hand the green lobby such an easy target.”

The Bush administration added insult to global-warming injury when it announced last week it was proposing to do away with current Clean Air Act rules requiring major utility corporations to upgrade their pollution controls whenever renovations are undertaken. This important rule was intended to force pollution-control modernization and prevent older energy plants from spewing copious amounts of toxins, especially carbon dioxide.

The utility corporations have been fighting these rules for years, both in court and on Capitol Hill. They’ve even played an obnoxious game of semantics in an effort to find loopholes in the regulations. Since the rules exempt “routine maintenance” from the requirement to modernize pollution controls, utility corporations have attempted to call all of their projects “routine.” This has led to a host of lawsuits centered on the meaning of the word.

“This decision is a victory for outdated polluting power plants and a devastating defeat for public health and our environment,” said U.S. Senator James Jeffords. “Why anyone would pick smog and soot over clean air is beyond comprehension.”

The Bush administration’s decision to continue its assault on the nation’s clean-air laws comes at a time when the rest of the industrialized world is taking steps to curtail pollutants. Earlier this month, for example, Japan and the last of the European Union nations joined 167 other nations by signing the Kyoto Protocols, the worldwide initiative to curb air pollutants that cause global warming.

The U.S. — which comprises 4 percent of the world’s population but emits 25 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide — has steadfastly refused to sign the Kyoto treaty, insisting that it would hurt corporate profits. The Bush administration — and Clinton’s before that — have instead relied on voluntary incentives for utility corporations to cut back their pollution. It clearly has failed. Early in Clinton’s watch, for example, he promised that U.S. carbon dioxide levels in the year 2000 would be the same as in 1990. However, those levels in-creased by 15 percent over the decade.

While the U.S. continues to stick its head in the sand about global warming, the overwhelming majority of the world’s scientists see it as a clear and present danger. And if you don’t believe the scientists, just look at the thermometer: Nine of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred during the last decade.

Faced with this phenomenon, the Bush administration is doing something worse than nothing: relaxing important rules to increase pollution. Even in post-Enron America, where energy greed has been so plainly exposed, utility corporations claim that cleaning up will ruin them financially. In other words, they want their billions of dollars today, even if it means bringing catastrophic ecological consequences to all of us tomorrow.

Here at home, Vermont lawmakers blew their chance of addressing global warming when the state legislature killed a renewable energy bill in the last days of its session. The rather tepid bill was aimed at encouraging alternative forms of energy use by offering tax breaks to wind and solar energy users, the ability to sell renewable energy back to the grid and options for rate payers to choose renewables.

But when Vermont’s largest corporate users of electricity — particularly IBM — got wind of the bill, they sent their lobbyists to the Statehouse to kill it. Bill McKibben, a renowned global warming expert and professor at Middlebury College, called the bill a mere baby step, enough to get Vermont “out of the back of the line and put us ahead of Arkansas and Mississippi” when it comes to renewable energy. It was too much for Big Blue and its energy-sucking friends, who were worried about their rates and being ostracized for not opting for renewables.

Michael Colby can be reached at mcolby@

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