An open letter to President G.W. (Global Warming) Bush

What will you tell your grandchildren?

Dear Mr. President:

Strangely, you are better positioned than most Americans to understand the real stakes involved in global warming. For we are told that you take your family heritage more seriously than most of us rootless babyboomers who barely know who our ancestors are. Your biographers report that you revere both your grandparents and parents. And you no doubt think more than most of us about leaving a legacy that will enshrine the Bush family name in the hearts of both your descendants and all future Americans.

You have taken office assuming that both the key to your legacy and immediate political future is presiding over a strong economy. But destiny has dealt you a new hand. You are among the first American presidents who will be judged by your grand- and great-grandchildren not so much by the strength of the economy as the health of the biosphere that you bequeath them. The best scientific minds of our generation have concluded that we are the first generation in all history to threaten the biosphere because of global warming, biodiversity loss, ocean pollution, water aquifer depletion, chemical contamination and a number of other system-wide environmental threats.

The Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) represents the largest scientific effort to address a global environmental problem in human history.

It now clearly warns that unless we reduce CO2 emissions, we may well inhabit a world in the mid-21st century in which many people—particularly the poor, sick and elderly—die from disease, large portions of the earth are flooded, huge storms regularly cause billions of dollars in damage, famines and droughts starve and kill off large numbers of Third World peasants, mass migrations are common and agriculture had been disrupted.

And many scientists fear global warming may interact with other biospheric threats like biodiversity loss, ocean pollution and water aquifer depletion in even more destructive ways. At a minimum, your grandchildren will spend much of their incomes over their lifetimes paying for our present consumption.

If we continue damaging the biosphere, we will force countless billions of people whose faces we will never see and whose voices we will never hear, through no fault of their own, to lead diminished lives for decades and even centuries to come.

You are not responsible for this mess, and it seems almost unfair to expect you to make the enormous changes necessary to correct it. It is correctable, of course. If you had devoted the $1.2-$1.4 trillion tax cut to develop clean autos that can use available technologies to get 50-60 miles to the gallon, make mass purchases of photovoltaic cells to reduce their cost, vigorously promote energy conservation and use U.S. leadership to push other countries to do the same, you would have both helped our economy in the short run and left a long-term legacy that would have made you one of our greatest American presidents, hands-down.

But, of course, given the “political realities” of modern-day America, it seems ridiculous to even suggest such a course. Even Bill Clinton and Al Gore bowed to these realities. While they urged action to avert global warming, they did relatively little to halt the largest increase in CO2 emissions in human history that occurred from 1992-2000. How can one expect a Houston oil man, whose chief of staff, Andrew Card, was GM’s chief lobbyist against the Kyoto global warming treaty, to find the wisdom and courage necessary to strike a new energy course as dramatic as required by the biospheric crisis we face?

I guess we cannot. I suppose the next four years will be a period of dismal dithering as the biosphere continues to degrade and the danger to future generations continues to mount. But hope springs eternal in the human breast. If it took a conservative to go to China or sign the first treaty reducing nuclear weapons, or a liberal to pass welfare reform and balance the budget, perhaps—miracle of miracles—it will be a former oil industry executive who first shifts our nation on a path toward sustainable energy.

If this miracle does come to pass, I suppose that it won’t be because of technical environmental arguments. We are told that Nancy Reagan eventually came to embrace the goals of the nuclear freeze movement not because she became a nuclear arms expert, but because she experienced a consciousness shift in which she finally understood the threat they posed to humanity.

If you do change your present position on global warming, I suppose it will be because you experience a similar change in consciousness about such short-sighted actions as your recent withdrawal from the Kyoto global warming agreement that pose a threat to your own grandchildren, great-grandchildren and the future generations they symbolize.

And I thus humbly suggest that you consider a basic question: what will you tell your own grandkids when they ask how you could have failed to act to prevent a global warming catastrophe that will so afflict their lives?

You will not find this an easy question to answer, for three reasons: first, you will be embarrassed to offer the “America First” explanation you gave for your recent withdrawal from the 1997 Kyoto Agreement, in which the United States solemnly committed to reduce its carbon dioxide emission levels 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. You said on March 29:

“We will not do anything that harms our economy. Because first things first are the people who live in America. That’s my priority. … The idea of placing caps on CO2 does not make economic sense for America.”

Although your candor was in a way refreshing, your answer will hardly satisfy your grandchildren. “But Grandad,” they may well ask, “aren’t we Americans? How could you and your generation put your short-term consumption above the well-being of your own younger flesh and blood, we who will determine the ultimate meaning of your lives? And how could you so damage the biosphere for everyone for all time just so America could enjoy an extra point or two of GNP growth?”

Secondly, it has become more than obvious that “It’s not just the economy, stupid!” Global warming is, above all, a moral issue. We are the first generation, and you are among the first presidents, who can no longer think merely as descendants. Because we are the first generation whose technological reach extends hundreds of years into the future, we have a new moral duty to think as elders and ancestors, as people who bear a unique responsibility for the billions of innocent lives to come who will so much depend upon our mercy and wisdom.

And you will have a third problem looking your grandchildren in the eyes, sir. You will not be able to plausibly plead ignorance. Your March 29 statement was particularly remarkable because you did not even bother to dispute such statements as the following contained in the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report:

“Projected climate change will be accompanied by an increase in heat waves, often exacerbated by increased humidity and urban air pollution, which would cause an increase in heat related deaths and illness episodes. The evidence indicates that the impact would be greatest in urban populations affecting particularly the elderly, sick and those without access to air conditioning.”

Mr. President, think how fast the time has gone since you graduated from college. The day will arrive even more quickly in the 2030s when you will confront the fundamental question that will haunt us all at the end of our lives: whether we have left a legacy worthy of our names. It is difficult to imagine a more painful way to approach one’s death than to know that one has failed one’s own flesh and blood.

I truly hope, for your sake as well as ours, that you will be able to look into your grandchildren’s eyes with pride, that you will be able to say that you had the courage and wisdom to do what no president before you has done, that you boldly acted to break with the fossil fuel past and launch this nation on the sustainable energy future it needed to preserve America’s promise for them and all humanity. If not, the name “Bush” may well be reviled, not revered, by your own descendants, not to mention all humanity for many generations to come.

Fred Branfman