Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill is fond of telling the story of meeting Jane Fonda a few years ago. While CEO of Alcoa, he was invited to a White House briefing on global warming and found himself seated next to the actress and peace protester. She turned to him and said, "I'm a friend of the greens. What in the world are you doing here?"
Mr. O'Neill was startled and offended by the remark. "The assumption," he said later, "is you must not be a friend of the environment or the children ... if you are an industrialist."
If he met up with Ms. Fonda today, however, she would undoubtedly be less belligerent. Mr. O'Neill seems to be emerging as an aggressive advocate of action on global warming -- a strange role not just for a former industrialist but also for a top official in the administration of George W. Bush, who, like 97 members of the U.S. Senate, opposed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which calls on industrialized nations to make drastic cuts in emissions of carbon dioxide. Even Clinton administration studies estimate that implementing Kyoto would cut the rate of U.S. growth by one half -- and hurt poor nations more than rich.
At the first meeting of the president's cabinet, Mr. O'Neill passed out copies of a speech he gave at a trade association meeting in 1998 in which he said that there were two issues that transcend all others: "One is nuclear holocaust. . . . The second is environmental: specifically, the issue of global climate change and the potential of global warming."
In the speech, Mr. O'Neill criticized Kyoto -- not because it's too tough but because it's too timid. "I believe the real danger to civilization," he said, "is that, as a consequence of this 'brilliant' political process, we don't do anything for 10 years. That would not be a good idea."
Don't feel too relieved that climate change is outside Mr. O'Neill's ambit. Listen to what Christine Todd Whitman, the new chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, has been saying lately. Last week, she said the administration is considering putting limits on carbon-dioxide emissions as part of a "multi-pollutant strategy." In other words, the Clean Air Act would be amended to add restrictions on carbon dioxide, the most prominent of the greenhouse gases, to a list of chemicals that now includes sulfur dioxide and lead. Even though Al Gore liked the idea of calling carbon dioxide a pollutant, not even the Clinton administration had the nerve to push it this way.
Most likely a multi-pollutant strategy would mean a heavy carbon tax on just about every fuel -- except nuclear. (I'm assuming that the carbon dioxide expelled from the lungs of humans in the process of breathing would be excluded.)
A multi-pollutant strategy would help realize the objective of many greens. As the late Aaron Wildavsky, professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote, "Warming (and warming alone), through its primary antidote of withdrawing carbon from production and consumption, is capable of realizing the environmentalist's dream of an egalitarian society based on the rejection of economic growth in favor of a smaller population's eating lower on the food chain, consuming a lot less, and sharing a much lower level of resources much more equally."
In an interview on CNN's "Crossfire," Robert Novak asked Ms. Whitman, "So, governor, the poor deluded voters who voted for George Bush thinking that he was different from Al Gore on the question of global warming, they made a sorry mistake?"
"Well," Ms. Whitman replied, "maybe they didn't listen closely enough, but he was very clear about that during the campaign." But, she added, "there are ways that we can get to a multi-pollutant strategy on energy that would allow for energy and still meet some of these demands and the needs we need to meet on global warming."
Actually, during the campaign, Mr. Bush had sensible things to say about global warming. He said that he opposed any policies that "would drastically increase the cost of gasoline, home heating oil, natural gas and electricity" and that any climate-related actions by the U.S. would have to include "market-based mechanisms."
The U.S. desire for extensive use of those mechanisms -- such as trading pollution credits or establishing carbon "sinks" (forests and farms that suck carbon dioxide out of the air) -- was the issue on which the post-Kyoto talks last November in The Hague foundered.
Follow-up talks are being scheduled in Bonn for June or July, and the administration urgently needs a clear policy. It's hard to see what the U.S. has to gain from ratifying the treaty, and accepting the Kyoto regime would cancel the benefits of any imaginable tax cuts.
As recently as December, Ms. Whitman didn't have a clue about climate change. When asked about the "state of the science" on global warming, she replied, "Clearly, there's a hole in the ozone, but I saw a study the other day that showed that that was closing." Whoops. The ozone hole is another matter entirely, and besides that issue is so '80s!
Mr. O'Neill is actually more promising. While his rhetoric sounds alarmist, he also expresses an admirable skepticism. In his 1998 speech, he said we really have just "one-and-a-half facts" -- that carbon dioxide concentrations have risen and that global temperatures seem to be up over the past century by half a degree Celsius. Beyond that, "we really need to do much more on R&D."