Bush, Nader, and the Lost Years of Climate Policy

Actions by these two very different men set climate policy back eight years.

From 2001 to 2009, the US sat on its hands while the atmosphere filled with carbon. Much of that carbon came from the US itself, at six billion tons per year up to the 2008 crash. The story of how this came to pass is yet to be fully written. It is, in part, a tale of misguided idealism (in the person of Ralph Nader) and of broken promises (by George Bush).

The Nader part is familiar. If he had won the 2000 election, Al Gore was guaranteed to take action on climate change. It was his signature issue, from the time he sponsored the first congressional hearings on the subject in 1976 through his role in negotiating the Kyoto Protocol. As we all know, Gore lost Florida by only a few hundred votes. Nader racked up 96,000 votes in Florida; the outcome would have flipped if even 1% of them had voted for Gore.  Instead, we got Bush, an outcome that those voters found far less to their liking than Gore would have been.

While the impact of Nader on the outcome is still often discussed, Bush’s breach of faith seems to have slipped out of most people’s memory. In early September of 2000, candidate Bush pledged to cap U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. After the inauguration, Christine Whitman at EPA and Paul O’Neill at Treasury pushed for action on climate change. But there was an onslaught of pressure from the fossil fuel industry, funneled through Dick Cheney among others. Bush caved within three months in office. His pledge had lasted just long enough to help him get to the White House.

Thus, Bush’s lack of principle combined with Nader’s excess of idealism to produce an eight-year hiatus in U.S. climate policy. If Nader hadn’t blocked Gore’s election, or if Bush had stood by his word, the world would be eight years ahead of where we are today in fighting climate change. During those eight lost years, the US emitted about fifty billion tons of carbon, much of which will still be in the atmosphere three centuries from now.

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Reader Comments

27 Replies to “Bush, Nader, and the Lost Years of Climate Policy”

  1. Dan said;
    “…..During those eight lost years, the US emitted about fifty billion tons of carbon, much of which will still be in the atmosphere three centuries from now…..”

    Dear Dan,
    You deliberately failed to mention how many billions of tons of carbon dioxide are removed from the atmosphere by vegetation growth, precipitation and other natural processes. When the earth’s natural cycles are properly analyzed then there is far less excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and there is no verifiable and measurable effect on the average global atmospheric temperature due to excess carbon dioxide. There is no conclusive and irrefutable scientific proof that carbon dioxide is the driving force in global climate.

    1. As a scientist and professor with considerable expertise in climate science, I can say that there is much conclusive evidence that greenhouse gases, mainly from burning fossil fuels, are rapdily heating the earth’s climate. You are right that much CO2 is cycling in the biosphere. CO2 taken up be plants is released when the plants decay or the the leaves decompose. This is in balance, since the total amount of photosynthesis is not changing much over time. However, the steady increase in CO2 that we observe year after year is due to burning fossil fuels that accumulated over millions of years.

    2. Almost half the manmade CO2 is absorbed by the ocean. Most of the rest is just piling up in the atmosphere. That’s why it’s gone up 40% since the invention of the steam engine, and why it’s going up now faster than it has in the time we’ve had instruments to measure it. You can say “natural cycle” but that’s a meaningless phrase when you can’t find any natural forces that would cause the observed effect.

  2. Several years into the second GWB term, I found myself again in a room with several key Florida environmental “activists” (actually, major donors to activist groups) whose influence had steered votes away from Gore to Nader or “none of the above.” They’d been motivated to oppose Gore because of his failure to march precisely to their tune on the future of Homestead Air Force Base. They had resort homes in the Keys, and didn’t want the former base turned into a commercial airport. Six years or so into the Bush Administration, these South Florida environmentalists were still celebrating Gore’s loss as their gain. Environmental politics are complicated mixtures of place and policy and personality.

  3. You are so right !
    And I think it’s MORE than 8 years.
    In those 8 years, the world didn’t stall, it regressed.
    Those 8 years killed the Kyoto protocol momentum, and finally the treaty itself, while it was an excellent instrument, then (in the context of the turning of the century), to kick start the process at world level.

    Benoit
    Montréal

    1. BENOIT, most tragically, since 1970 we have been celebrating Earth Day, to celebrate the planet’s environment and raise public awareness about pollution.

      The most significant accomplishment so far is the conclusion by Walt Kelly, as illustrated by his comic strip character Pogo at the first Earth Day:

      “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

      And the worst Us/Them dichotomy of all time was produced, with no progress in favor of the human race in sight in 2016.

  4. This is modern mythology, at best. I think Nader is a convenient target for those looking to blame someone else for a bitter loss. The reality is that a significant number of Democrats (depending on who you believe between 12%-20%) voted for George Bush. If Gore had been able to convince a few of those from that segment of his own party to vote for him – history would be different. Blaming any of the 10 other political parties is wrong – they have every right to try and support their political movement, it was up to Gore, his campaign staff and supporters to convince voters that he was the right candidate. I voted for Gore, feel your pain – but reality is blaming Nader is wrong. The fault lies squarely with Gore and his campaign staff.

  5. Thank you Dan for this very sobering and very timely piece. I voted for Nader, so frustrated with the Dems and the broken electoral system. But I will not make that choice this time, the risks are far too great.

  6. “Twelve percent of Florida Democrats (over 200,000) voted for Republican George Bush”
    -San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 9, 2000

    CLD is right. Gore ran a lousy campaign. He did not turn populist until the end. He could not even carry his own home state of Tennessee, and he alone is responsible for the fact that over 200,000 Florida Democrats voted for Bush in the election. Please quit blaming an unfortunate outcome on Nader.

  7. CLD said;
    “….. The reality is that a significant number of Democrats (depending on who you believe between 12%-20%) voted for George Bush…..”

    Dear CLD,
    Good point. A significant number of Democrats are voting for Mr. Trump, a vote for Bernie benefits Trump, a vote for Hillary is shameful. Hurry November

  8. Weird premise. Really this is just a sad attack on Nader masquerading as legitimate environmental concern. Who is to say that Gore would have stood by his word any more than Bush? That’s not exactly what politicians are known for–especially ones who are financed heavily by special interests in the hundreds of millions of dollars (like Gore was). Those same fossil fuel interests would have existed had Gore’s campaign been successful.

    In addition, it’s sad to continue to blame Nader for Gore’s pathetic, centrist, uninspiring campaign. Point the finger at the politician who completely failed to effectively garner support because he had bad policy positions or perhaps blame the terrible Supreme Court decision. Stop atracking the man responsible for our cars not being murder machines. Maybe you should focus your efforts on advocating for a more democratic voting system.

    Bottom line: blaming Nader is pathetic. Blame Bush, blame the Supreme Court, blame our two-party system, and blame Gore before you look to a person who has focused his life to do good work for society.

    1. DIEGO said;
      “……Blame Bush, blame the Supreme Court, blame our two-party system, and blame Gore…..”

      Should we not blame Hillary? Today we must choose whom to blame. Let’s blame Hillary and vote for Bernie.

      1. I find it interesting that you have chosen not to respond to the person above, Bill Demott, who said he was a “scientist and professor with considerable expertise in climate science.” After all your many accusations of those who believe in AGW as being unethical, it seems that the cat has got your tongue when you finally had an opportunity to challenge the beliefs of one of those scientists “face to face” so to speak.

        You should take this opportunity to ask him questions and either expose the flaws in his reasoning, or learn something yourself.

        1. BBQ said;
          “……..I find it interesting that you have chosen not to respond to the person above,…..”

          Dear BBQ,
          There are two topics for which it is useless to argue – climate & sodomy. Now that we have the opportunity to vote (and win) on both of these issues, why should we waste our time on ceaseless banter?

          1. And yet you come here almost daily to make posts denying AGW.

            It seems you have a lot to say on the subject, that is until you are faced with someone who is an actual expert.

          2. “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
            ― Isaac Asimov

  9. I voted Green in 2000, and I would do so again. Yes, Gore cared about climate, but not nearly enough and he was poorly suited for contending with the 2000 Congress. If you want to BLAME someone…. blame the DEMOCRATIC PARTY for failing to heed the lesson of 2000. The power hungry DNC elites are so damn power hungry they have not gone to the voting reform doctor to get their third-party immunization shots. If they had adopted internal Instant Runoff Voting when they had the chance, this and every future election cycle would look a whole lot different, and climate change – at least on the DEM side – would be representing the common voter, rather than the mega natural gas extractors. History will keep repeating until the DEMs learn their third party lessons. It’s time for IRV! Fairvote.org

  10. Dead wrong… in terms of the implied message. Hillary’s fatal climate plan is no obstacle to thoughtful citizens casting third party votes for truly meaningful scientifically-based ADEQUATE action. Hillary’s fatal plan will at least burn down the house more slowly than Trumps, but it’s still chiefly about building natural gas infrastructure. Hillary is PRO-gas & MO’-gas, even though the science says that will break the carbon budget. A busted carbon budget means displaced coastal populations and infrastructure, sea food collapse due to acidification, and substantial drops in the global multi-crop harvest. I’m not terribly worried about “losing 8 more years” of woefully inadequate climate action. Either we get out of the fossil fuel flash flood or we sink. Hillary’s plans to just dog paddle don’t merit my vote or my tears if Trump wins as a result. Now if she calls for a halt to pipeline construction and leasing, and instead announces plans for a day-after Pearl Harbor level program to build a real electric grid and deployment of Sacalow’s climate wedges then we can talk.

    1. Steve El said;
      “……I’m not terribly worried about “losing 8 more years” of woefully inadequate climate action……. Hillary’s plans to just dog paddle don’t merit my vote or my tears if Trump wins as a result…..”

      Dear Steve;
      Thanks for your perceptive analysis and good prose. We share your sentiments, nobody should ever be worried about inadequate climate action. There is absolutely nothing that anyone can do to effectively modulate, slow down, reverse or otherwise achieve any form of actual control over the global climate. The greatest unproven and unsubstantiated farce in modern day so-called “climate science” is the intellectually naive presumption that mankind can somehow achieve control over the entire global climate by regulating small and insignificant quantities of carbon dioxide.

  11. Dan, the root cause of our problem with deniers was just explained by Neil DeGrasse Tyson:

    In a recent conversation with The Huffington Post’s Impact & Innovation managing editor, David Freeman, Tyson addressed a question about how science courses in U.S. schools are lacking. The education system, he said, is too focused on getting students to memorize information they’ll likely forget instead of teaching them analytical skills.

    “We think of education all too often as, a student walks into a classroom with an empty mind and then you pour stuff into the head, and now they’re educated,” he said. “And at no time are you actually trained how to think, how to analyze, how to process information, how to judge information.”

    Our education systems, including college, must do much, much better than this if we are ever going to evolve beyond chimpanzees enough to actually use our brains to survive.

    Also, our current presidential primaries are proving that we are in gravest danger of our worst case scenario failure mode that Eisenhower warned us about in his 1961 Farewell Address:

    “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.”

    Dan, can you get your colleagues to take action in time?

    1. Dan, this blog proves that we are afraid to unite to fight for our rights when we are threatened with marginalization. That is our worst case Achilles Heel and no group is overcoming it today.

      Trump proves daily that someone with his psychology can overwhelm the leadership of his political party to do his bidding regardless of how much he threatens the principles they thought they believed in.

      Today, political meetings have turned our democracy into an ochlocracy and there are no leaders who have proven that they can restore our democracy yet.

  12. Anthony beseeches Dan;
    “…..Dan, can you get your colleagues to take action in time?…..”

    Dear Anthony,
    Dan never answers your prayers. Instead he ignores you. Dan knows that he is not God and cannot perform miracles. Climate is his day job, to teach. Dan does not know how to effectively modulate, slow, reverse or otherwise achieve actual physical control of the global climate. Neither does anyone else. Don’t blame Dan.

    1. It is interesting that someone who said regarding talking about climate change, “why should we waste our time on ceaseless banter?”, that you have so much to say about the topic.

      It is also strange to point out how someone is being ignored when you seem to have avoided engaging with probably the most knowledgeable person here when he directly addressed you.

    2. BQRQ, I am forced to generally agree with what you say here.

      Within the borders of the UC campuses, professors must be treated as if they are omnipotent.

      Uniting themselves to inform and motivate the general public to take action is not one of their cultural values, and that is one root cause of exponential atmospheric CO2 increases since the first Earth Day in 1970 when Pogo tried to warn us “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

  13. A friend of mine charted Gore’s weekly polls in 2000 and compared them to Gore’s stump speech as it evolved. In weeks when the speech sounded more like Nader’s his numbers went up. In weeks when he walked it all back and sounded like a DLC machine politician, his numbers went down. Clearly, Nader influenced Gore in ways that made him more appealing to whatever demographic understands the public interest is their interest. For all you or I know, without Nader in the race Gore would have been a lame, boring version of Clinton, and lost by a landslide. It’s the fallacy of false assumption: choosing your favorite alternative future from an infinite number of ways it all could have gone. It’s emotionally satisfying to blame Nader for the Bush years, but it’s not mathematically valid.

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Dan Farber

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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