America - Andrew Stephen contemplates a closed mind

G8 - Bush is not for turning over issues such as Kyoto. He lost his curiosity about the world years

If you were to stop a thousand Americans in the street now and ask them about the G8 and Gleneagles, I doubt whether more than half a dozen would react with anything other than blank stares. Tony Blair and the British media may convince themselves that the Bush administration is under critical pressure to change US policy on global warming, but the thoughts of Washington have already turned to how hot it is and how much we need those air-conditioners humming away, helping use up a quarter of the world's energy.

I reported in June how, when Tony and Cherie did their double act in Washington, Bush tossed Blair a bone over aid to Africa that was almost contemptuous in its meaninglessness. It was, nevertheless, reported in the British press as progress. We can expect much the same outcome over Kyoto and debt relief at Gleneagles ("Tony Blair won a resounding victory last night after persuading President Bush to launch a new $10bn US probe into the causes of global warming . . ." etc, etc).

But Blair needs a lesson in how the Bush administration thinks. Yes, America is slowly waking up to global warming. Yes, 160 US mayors representing 32 million people pledged their support for the Kyoto Protocol less than a month ago. Yes, the Senate passed a bill favouring mandatory control of greenhouse-gas emissions. And yes, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger says: "The debate is over. We know the science, we see the threat and we know the time for action is now." But the Bush administration is not for turning, particularly over Kyoto.

I've never been convinced that Bush (or Blair, for that matter) "lied" over Iraq; to me, it has always been a matter of competence and of an unwillingness to absorb new information. If Bush was ever curious about the world, I suspect that this stopped in his early thirties, when alcoholism was taking its toll; the older men then influencing him were oil businessmen whose view was that only if barrel-loads of money were sloshing their way could the economy be seen to be booming as God intended. If elitist nonsense about "global warming" threatens to interfere with this wholesome process, it must be wrong.

The assumption in this mindset is that everybody of sound mind, save those elites and other subversives, concurs. Back in 2001, Bush appointed Christie Whitman, previously a right-wing governor of New Jersey, as secretary for the environment, assuming her to be a fellow-traveller. But she genuinely listened to new evidence on such things as global warming - so she had to go. Before she resigned, she removed an entire chapter on global warming from a major Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report "rather than go out with something half-baked or not put out the whole report".

Her nemesis was the chief of staff in the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Philip Cooney, a lawyer who took it upon himself to doctor scientific EPA reports. The administration has gatekeepers like him burrowed into the bureaucracy to thwart those not of the faith; John Bolton served this function at the State Department. Cooney came to the White House from the American Petroleum Institute and has just left it to become a PR man for ExxonMobil.

Mindful that Cooney and his masters would not like what they were saying, EPA scientists made small concessions in their reports - for instance, saying there were "uncertainties" about climate change and that ecological changes were "difficult" to track. Cooney altered these words to "significant and fundamental uncertainties" and "extremely difficult".

This week I learned more about this when I read the section on global warming in a briefing for Republicans by the pollster Frank Luntz. "The debate is closing against us," Luntz wrote, "but there is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science. Any discussion . . . has to be grounded in an effort to reassure a sceptical public that you care about the environment for its own sake." Always say "climate change" rather than "global warming", Republicans were told, because it is less frightening; likewise, they should never say "drilling for oil" but "exploring for energy".

The ability of Blair to budge this cultural mindset is not nearly so great as he supposes. Bush will change on Kyoto only if he can be persuaded that doing so would grant him a place in posterity, the very thought of which makes him preen these days. Don't be deceived, therefore, by any dramatic announcements about new global task forces or the like: the US already has a $1.6bn-a-year project to find the reasons for climate change, and it has already instituted measures to reduce emissions by 2010.

Meaningful progress on Kyoto will wait until well after Bush is out of office - as Blair, surely, will discover.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 04 July 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Now is the time to act