WASHINGTON – The White House is putting together a five-year plan for more research on climate change, a move that critics say leaves hard decisions on reducing global warming until after President Bush leaves office.
The Bush administration strategy being debated at a three-day conference this week refocuses a 13-year-old research program on providing better economic projections of potential climate policy changes and tighter coordination of efforts by more than a dozen federal agencies.
Administration officials said their hope is that as further research is done, still-developing technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells will emerge in practical uses to allow the United States to address the threats of global warming without wreaking havoc on the nation's economy.
"The science program is kind of the ground we're laying here for the work that will go on on the technology side,'' Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham told reporters Tuesday.
John H. Marburger III, the president's science and technology adviser, said the White House wants better data that can be used to shape a "clearly articulated policy ... that doesn't put the economy at risk.''
The new research plan asserts that people are clearly agents of environmental change but it is still unclear how much human activities are causing changes such as global warming. For many climate experts, though, it reopens questions that most scientists considered already fairly settled.
Critics say the plan also largely ignores decades of international work into climate change led by the United Nations and the Clinton administration's published findings in 2000 from a decade-long federal assessment of potential impacts of climate change around the United States.
"The plan would be a great plan if it were written five or 10 years ago,'' said Janine Bloomfield, a senior scientist for Environmental Defense, an advocacy group. "But we've learned a lot since then.''
"I don't think the science plan really should be used as an excuse to delay tough actions,'' said Peter Frumhoff, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' global environment program. "If you're taking a precautionary approach to climate change, you'll both do research and you'll take actions to minimize the risks of really serious consequences.''
Bush has advocated voluntary measures for industry to cut smokestack and tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases that many scientists blame for warming the atmosphere like a greenhouse.
Some 1,200 scientists and government officials were gathering Tuesday for the start of the three-day meeting at a downtown hotel to hear about the White House draft strategy and to suggest changes before it is published in final form by next April.
"The president has accepted the notion that some action has to be made,'' Marburger said.
"This is not a no-action, no-decision situation,'' echoed James R. Mahoney, the assistant commerce secretary who directs U.S. climate research efforts.
President Bush's plan for slowing the rate of growth in heat-trapping gas emissions calls for increased federal spending on science and technology and for industry to voluntarily reduce air pollution.
Shortly after taking office, Bush rejected an international treaty negotiated in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 mandating reduction of those gases by industrial nations.