Bush and Exxon get religion on climate change, sort of

exxon.jpgTwo bits of related news: Exxon Mobil, the most significant industry climate change skeptic, has cut ties with the Competitive Enterprise Institute and begun participating in a series of talks on greenhouse gas regulations in the U.S. Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that George Bush is preparing to use his State of the Union address to formally shift his stance on global warming and signal a willingness to accept caps on U.S. emissions.

Officially, Exxon says that its position on global warming has not changed and has been widely misunderstood. Regardless, the break with CEI and newfound interest in regulation represents a clear shift in emphasis for the company. CEI, you probably recall, is the lobbying firm that gained a measure of notoriety this past summer by airing a series of cheesy pro-CO2 ads timed to coincide with the release of An Inconvenient Truth.

The news about Bush is still in the realm of hearsay. Aides to Tony Blair claim that Bush revealed his policy shift in a series of private talks with the British Prime Minister shortly before Christmas. We’ll have to wait until Bush’s speech on the 23rd before we know more.

Critics will be quick to question the motives of both Exxon and Bush, or to cast doubt on the depth of their commitment to fighting climate change. Exxon in particular has likely just read the writing on the wall and realized that it can more advantageously position itself by participating in the legislative process rather than throwing bombs at it. Bush may be considering his legacy, or seeking issues on which he can forge bipartisan consensus, or looking to leave his mark on legislation that he views as inevitable, or truly convinced of the importance of climate change.

These conjectures largely miss the point, though. Environmentalists are probably never going to find champions in either Exxon or the current administration. But these shifts signal a major realignment in the bounds of the debate over global warming. We are very rapidly reaching a point where it’s no longer tenable to deny the reality of manmade global warming, or question whether action needs to be taken to forestall its consequences. The only question now appears to be what form that action should take.

Watch over the course of the next year as the new terms of the debate trickle through the popular culture. Gone will be the measured he-said/she-said media stories that give equal column space to the dwindling supply of global warming skeptics. Gone will be the cocktail-party boor who claims that climate change is a hoax.

In their place will be a debate over what measures to take, and when, and how much they will cost, and who will pay. That debate will be fierce, but at least it’s the right one to have.

Update: This is what I mean by missing the point. In a post entitled, “Exxon’s Conversion: A Sober Second Look,” Desmog Blog notes that “there are several reasons to question the sincerity of the world’s biggest oil merchant.”

I’d put this a little more strongly. There are absolutely no reasons at all to believe Exxon has any sincere interest in tackling climate change. But it doesn’t matter all that much. The news here is not that the Sierra Club has great new ally in the battle to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The news is that the ground has shifted enough that even companies like Exxon can no longer deny the obvious.

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