Has Bush seen the light on climate change?

by on June 4th, 2007

If we take President Bush at his word, the United States is ready, even determined to move to the front of the international community when it comes to climate change. “The United States is taking the lead,” the President announced on May 31, “and that’s the message I’m taking to the G8.”

Given the Bush administration’s long history of obstructing international action on climate change, starting with his rejection of the Kyoto accord months after taking office, I felt the need to ask one of his spokespersons on climate policy, Kristin Hellmer at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, if President Bush was serious about this.

“The President doesn’t announce things and not follow through with them,” she said.

Encouraged, I checked the details. It turns out that there is at least some substance behind the President’s bold statement. Jim Connaughton, Bush’s chief environmental policy advisor, followed Bush’s speech with a press conference at which he presented a well-articulated plan. The U.S. wants to work with other nations to create a new framework for international climate negotiations that would have agreements in place and working when the Kyoto accord ends in 2012. “It’s our going-forward strategy on the issue of energy security and climate change,” Connaughton said.

Rather than trying to negotiate a global consensus on greenhouse gas emissions right now, the U.S. believes it would be more productive to bring together smaller groups of countries in negotiations that would lead to “the statement of a long-term goal for reducing greenhouse gases” by the end of 2008. “What the President is trying to do here is find that consensus that will allow for forward progress,” says Connaughton.

It’s worth noting that this is the first time that the Bush administration has indicated any willingness to set specific goals for reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere. It’s perhaps a mark of how desperate other world leaders are for the U.S. to play a positive role with respect to the climate that both Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed the Bush initiative, at least in public. It’s an “important step on the road,” according to Merkel, and “for the first time . . . the opportunity for a proper global deal,” said Blair.

The meetings are to start this fall with the 15 biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, which would include the U.S., several European nations, plus rapidly developing economies such as India and China. The aim will be to forge agreements on “mid-term goals”, to be realized through nation-by-nation targets and strategies to reach them within a decade or two. They would also involve industry leaders from sectors such as transportation, power generation and agriculture in order to encourage technological innovation and rapid dissemination of best practices and new technologies, the latter aided by reducing tariffs and other trade barriers.

Connaughton points out that a focus on speeding technology transfer and encouraging individualized national targets and strategies may be a more effective way to encourage developing nations such as China, India, and Brazil to accept that they too need to rein in their greenhouse gas emissions, than the current cap-and-trade paradigm, which they, along with the United States and Australia, continue to reject.

Each nation’s unique recipe for reducing its climactic impact would be legislated and, in that sense, binding. “It’s the mechanisms that become binding,” says Connaughton. As an example of the kind of mid-term goals he envisions, Connaughton offered President Bush’s call during his January 2007 State of the Union address for the U.S. to reduce gasoline usage by 20% within ten years.

Has the Bush administration seen the light? Can Blair, Merkel, and other world leaders expect to hear “It’s a deal,” rather than “Dead on arrival,” (then U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s infamous reaction to the Kyoto protocol) in response to the next rounds of climate negotiations? Is the U.S. truly ready to take the lead on this vital issue?

One clue lies in the proposal itself. Its real focus is on getting other countries to lower trade barriers to U.S. technology and services. “We want to drive to agreement on a schedule of eliminating these tariffs in the Doha round by the end of next year,” Connaughton said. (The Doha round is a series of negotiations sponsored by the World Trade Organization that started in Doha, Qatar in 2001, aimed at a worldwide reduction of tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers.)

Unfortunatly, the President’s plan is not nearly as strong on lowering greenhouse gas emissions. According to Connaughton, any greenhouse gas or temperature targets would be “aspirational” rather than binding.

A second clue lies in the timing of Bush’s initiative, just a week before the start of the G8 meeting in Heiligendamm, Germany. Chancellor Merkel has staked her credibility on getting the G8 to set concrete goals on greenhouse gases and global warming now, not at some indefinite date in the future. This in turn has turned up the heat on the U.S. to do something positive about climate change. Bush’s response—to propose a whole new framework for climate change negotiations—undermines Merkel’s initiative.

But the clearest indication of what the U.S. really intends to can be found in a heavily blue-penciled draft of the proposed G8 climate agreement leaked from a U.S. government source to the environmental group Greenpeace and published on 26 May. At the top of the draft, the U.S. declares that the G8 plan and language “runs counter to our overall position and crosses multiple ‘red lines’ in terms of what we simply cannot agree to.”

A few of the hundreds of statements the U.S. found unacceptable and blue-lined out:

“ . . . tackling climate change is an imperative not a choice.”

“ . . . resolute and concerted international action is urgently needed to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and sustain our common basis of living.”

“We will strive to reach a necessary global agreement by 2009.”

So no, Bush did not hear the voice of Gaia on the road to Heligendamm, and we are not going to witness an epiphany at this time. At the G8 and beyond, the new Bush climate program is far more likely to muddy the waters than clear the air.

Robert Adler