After six years of dodging the climate issue, the Bush administration is finally having to face it head on. They aren’t changing policy — don’t be silly! — but they are changing rhetoric.

Bush is changing his climate talk, but not his walk.

Photo: Whitehouse.gov

Over the past month, climate change has become impossible for the White House to ignore: more than 2,500 of the world’s top climate experts confirmed with at least 90 percent certainty that humans are to blame for rising global temperatures; the new Democratic leadership in Congress has made global warming a priority and swiftly launched hearings on the topic, some quite embarrassing for the administration; and every week brings more corporate leaders pleading for serious federal action.

President Bush gave a nod to the climate problem in his State of the Union address last month, but the clearest sign that he’s feeling the heat is a defensive letter put out by the White House on Wednesday, Feb. 7. “Following last Friday’s release of a new report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a number of media reports perpetuated inaccuracies that the president’s concern about climate change is new,” the letter begins. “In fact, climate change has been a top priority since the president’s first year in office. Beginning in June 2001, President Bush has consistently acknowledged climate change is occurring and humans are contributing to the problem.”

Critics like science journalist Chris Mooney pounced, pointing out that at least three times last year, Bush claimed climate science was up in the air. “There is a debate over whether it’s man-made or naturally caused,” Bush said in June of 2006.

The open letter also distorts a 2001 Bush statement to make it seem like he’s long believed humans were driving global warming. The letter quotes Bush thusly: “First, we know the surface temperature of the earth is warming … There is a natural greenhouse effect that contributes to warming … And the National Academy of Sciences indicates that the increase is due in large part to human activity.” But those ellipses, well, they elide quite a bit. In the full context of the speech, the human-caused “increase” refers to a rise in greenhouse-gas concentrations — a non-controversial observation — not to a rise in global temperatures.

The letter goes on to tout Bush’s climate-centric spending — nearly $29 billion since 2001 for “climate-related science, technology, international assistance, and incentive programs,” with $9 billion of that dedicated to climate research. “This is far more than any other nation,” the letter claims.

At the White House press briefing on Wednesday, Press Secretary Tony Snow echoed the same points: “many people have been saying, wow … isn’t it nice that the president has finally agreed that global warming has man-made components, only to find out, because we’ve been telling you, that he first started talking about it in June of 2001. … What he said [in 2001] was that global warming exists and humans are significant contributors.” (At Thursday’s press briefing, Snow was forced to clarify the full context of Bush’s 2001 statement.)

Consistent with its tendency to hammer home the message of the week, the Bush administration has also been sending out other emissaries to push its new-and-improved climate-change line.

Said Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, “As the president has said, and this [IPCC] report makes clear, human activity is contributing to changes in our earth’s climate and that issue is no longer up for debate.” Of the IPCC report specifically, Bodman said, “We’re very pleased with it. We’re embracing it. We agree with it.”

U.S. EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson was similarly cheery: “The release of the IPCC report marks a great day for the scientific body of knowledge on climate change,” he said. “[T]he uncertainties have been narrowed. That’s great from a science perspective. As a policymaker, it’s much better and easier to make decisions.”

This is a dramatic and clearly coordinated rhetorical about-face from a long-skeptical administration — but don’t expect real action to follow all the happy talk.

Bodman dismissed the notion of mandatory limits on greenhouse-gas emissions: “There is a concern within this administration … that the imposition of a carbon cap in this country may lead to the transfer of jobs and industry abroad to a country that does not have such a carbon cap. … You would have the U.S. economy damaged.”

Bodman continued, “Even if we were successful in accomplishing some kind of debate and discussion about what caps might be here in the United States, we are a small contributor to the overall, when you look at the rest of the world. And so it’s really got to be a global solution.”

A global solution! What a novel idea. Oh, wait, no it’s not. Bush summarily rejected the preeminent global solution, the Kyoto Protocol, in 2001 — even though, as we’re now told, he was quite convinced of the climate science at that point. Some other global solution, then? How about an international agreement to follow after Kyoto expires in 2012? Nah, the Bush administration doesn’t fancy that either.

The more things change — even the more the entire global climate changes — the more they stay the same.