The Washington Times

Eventually, the Iraq business will be over. Then it will be time for those most vexed with the Bush administration over Saddam Hussein – namely, left-wing Democratic partisans at home and an uncertain segment of opinion abroad – to find something else about which to be driven to distraction. May I suggest a closer look at a creeping Bush neo-environmentalist agenda touched upon in the State of the Union speech?

But first, a few more words about the vexation, which has a specific character to it. It is not only that Mr. Bush is doing something one can’t stand – or in some cases, that the reason one can’t stand something is that Mr. Bush is doing it. It is that Mr. Bush is maddeningly successful in doing what he is doing.

Take the near-frenzy into which Democratic partisans had whipped themselves in late January: His job-approval ratings had turned south on Mr. Bush, support for a war on Iraq was slipping – in general, he was at last getting his true comeuppance. Except that by early February, once the administration had re-engaged with the public on Iraq starting with the State of the Union speech, Mr. Bush’s job approval ratings were moving up again, and support for using military force against Iraq reached 70 percent in the latest Newsweek poll. Once you’ve got yourself invested in the proposition that you’re making headway, as the anti-Bush partisans did, news that you aren’t is most unwelcome indeed.

Mr. Bush unveiled several new initiatives in the state of the union message. One called for an increase in funding, to a total of $1.2 billion, for research into hydrogen-powered cars. Another was a program of $15 billion over five years to provide medicine for AIDS sufferers in Africa. Together, the two are suggestive of some very innovative thinking with, I think, an identifiable source: Call it “humanist environmentalism” and trace it to Bjorn Lomborg, the controversial Danish statistician who is both left-wing and the author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” a withering critique of the orthodoxies of doom currently propounded by the community of environmental activists.

First of all, the smaller program, the hydrogen-powered cars: The administration has at last answered the question of what it proposes to do about the Kyoto accords, the fantastically expensive pact to reduce worldwide emissions over the next century – from which the administration unceremoniously withdrew shortly after taking office, to much international consternation. The answer is some sort of breakthrough that drastically reduces reliance on hydrocarbons.

Now, there’s no guaranteeing innovation. It may be hydrogen-powered cars, something else altogether, or perhaps even nothing at all – in which case we will have all kinds of serious problems. [Here, one can perhaps take comfort from the famous remark of the late economist Herb Stein: “If something can’t go on forever, it will stop.”] And it’s unclear whether the several hundred million in new money Mr. Bush has proposed will make a difference, let alone the difference. It is, however, an indication of a new approach.

The reason this is important, as Mr. Lomborg has noted, is that you have two choices: You can either incur the direct and indirect costs mandated by Kyoto, with the result of slowing global warming by several years a century hence, or you can innovate your way out of the problem over the course of the century and, in the meantime, devote the resources you would otherwise spend on saving lives in the here and now.

That’s where the AIDS/Africa initiative comes in. If this is what it looks like, it may be the start of a massive humanitarian intervention by prosperous Western countries, with the United States in the lead, to take practical steps now to reduce the vast and unnecessary amount of “excess mortality” currently plaguing mankind.

A neo-environmentalism focused on actual human beings would be less concerned with expensive emissions restrictions, as Mr. Lomborg has noted, and more with ensuring first of all that everyone in the world has clean drinking water, a goal achievable at a fraction of Kyoto’s cost and with direct and incontrovertible benefit to the project’s beneficiaries.

Up until now, environmental activists have had the debate framed more or less exactly as they have wanted it: We must do whatever we can to stop the spread of the poisons that are ruining our air and water, heating up the planet and depleting its natural resources.

I think it would be very interesting to see Mr. Bush contest this issue on new terrain – well clear of the business-friendly opposition to regulation on which Republicans often get stuck. If Iraq is ultimately about preventing the mass death of innocents in horrendous attacks involving weapons of mass destruction, then after that threat ends, it might be time for Mr. Bush to deliver a major speech laying out a new lives-saved humanist environmentalism.