In an interview with E&ETV last week (subscription required) White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairman Jim Connaughton managed to get through the entire interview without touting the much-used but much-cherry-picked claim that the US has been beating Europe in reducing greenhouse gas emissions
That's not to say that there wasn't some fuzzy math-talk and a bit of revisionist history.
Monica Trauzzi: You mentioned the near-term goals, what steps will the U.S. take to limit emissions in the next 10 to 20 years?
Jim Connaughton: Well, in the next 10 to 20 years we are currently working to achieve the president's goal of improving the greenhouse gas intensity of our economy by 18 percent by 2012. That's how much you emit per unit of GDP. I'm pleased to say that we are well on track to meeting that goal. In fact, last year, stunningly, America saw a 3.3 percent increase in our GDP, but we actually had a net reduction of CO2 of about 1.3 percent. So this was the first time that America has seen a real reduction in CO2 in the wake of substantial economic growth. The only two other times we've seen that in recent history have been in relation to a recession. And certainly nobody is suggesting that we should make progress on climate change by putting our economy into a recession. So this is a very positive indicator that we can become leaner, more efficient, start investing in new technologies, while still growing our economy.
It's laudable that U.S. CO2 emissions went down last year. But Connaughton basically admits here that the whole concept of "greenhouse gas intensity" is deceptive, because it obfuscates actual emissions levels. If emissions go up slower than GDP, this statistic suggests progress on greenhouse gas emissions. That might look good in a soundbite, but it won't get us where we want to be. Note also that CO2 is only one greenhouse gas -- the administration has been touting CO2 emissions a lot this year, which suggests that the complete picture may be less rosy.
The interview later turns to a familiar laughable point.
Cue the history revision:
Monica Trauzzi: We've seen a change in tune of sorts from the president recently relating to climate change. Beyond this latest proposal, he also mentioned climate for the first time in this year's State of the Union address. Would you characterize this as a major shift in his position on climate change?
Jim Connaughton: No. I would characterize it as a continuing advancement of the president's strategy on climate change. He issued a very strong statement on climate change in June of 2001, reiterated it in July of 2001, and then launched our 10-year policy in June of 2002. I think the greater weight of the shift has been more of the public is actually paying attention to what it was the president laid down. (my emphasis)
The "very strong statement" was a historical misquote that Connaughton and Office of Science and Technology Policy director John Marburger started shopping around in February. The LA TImes called this bluff (hat tip to the Intersection:
(Marburger and Connaughton cite) a June 2001 speech by Bush, quoting him as saying that "we know the surface temperature of the Earth is warming.... There is a natural greenhouse effect that contributes to warming.... And the National Academy of Sciences indicates that the increase is due in large part to human activity."
But the parts of the speech excised or ignored by the letter give a somewhat different impression. For instance, the citation deletes a sentence that asserts that "concentration of greenhouse gases, especially CO2, have increased substantially since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution" -- a time frame suggesting that the contemporary world may have played only a small role.
Moreover, Bush's mention of the National Academy of Sciences was quickly followed by a sentence that cast doubt on the notion of human contribution to climate change. "Yet the academy's report tells us that we do not know how much effect natural fluctuations in climate may have had on warming," Bush said at the time.
"We do not know how fast change will occur or even how some of our actions could impact it," he added.
Unfortunately for Connaughton, the public has been paying attention to what the president laid down, and the Administration's strategy comes of as a Choose Your Own Adventure book read front-to-back.