Accused of dragging his feet on global warming, President Bush on Thursday proposed that by 2008 the countries that emit the most greenhouse gases come up with long-term goals to curb emissions.
Critics dismissed the strategy as a diversion and a delaying tactic, but some European leaders and a U.N official expressed hope that it might be a first step to more action.
“The United States takes this issue seriously,” Bush said in a speech. “The new initiative I’m outlining today will contribute to the important dialogue that will take place in Germany next week” — a reference to the Group of Eight industrial nations' summit.
Bush called for the first in a series of meetings to begin this fall, bringing together countries identified as major emitters. The list would include the United States, China, India and major European countries. After setting a goal to reduce emissions, the nations would be free to develop their own strategies to meet the target.
Bush's proposal is separate from U.N.-brokered climate talks already set for December in Bali, Indonesia.
The U.S. strategy also calls for cutting tariff barriers to sharing environmental technology.
Germany's 'two-degree' target
Bush has been under pressure from European allies to give ground on climate change at next week's meeting of the world's richest countries.
The sticking point is Bush's longstanding opposition to measurable goals for reducing emissions unless China and India also make those commitments.
Germany, which holds the European Union and Group of Eight presidencies, is proposing a so-called “two-degree” target, whereby global temperatures would be allowed to increase no more than 2 degrees Celsius — the equivalent of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit — before being brought back down. Practically, experts have said that means a global reduction in emissions of 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
The United States has rejected that approach.
James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the United States is not against setting goals but prefers to focus them on specific sectors, such as cleaner coal and reducing dependence on gasoline. “The U.S. has different sets of targets,” he said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is hosting the Group of Eight summit on June 6-8, has made fighting climate change the top issue at the annual event.
Combating global warming is also a concern for new French President Nicolas Sarkozy, with whom Bush wants to forge a good relationship, and for outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a close friend to Bush and an ally in the Iraq war.
Blair, for one, welcomed Bush's proposal. "For the first time (America) is setting its own domestic targets, for the first time it is saying it wants a global target for the reduction of emissions and therefore for the first time we've got the opportunity of getting a proper global deal," Blair told Sky News.
And Merkel called it "positive" as well as "common ground on which to act."
Yet Merkel also stressed that a new international agreement should be worked out under the guidance of the United Nations. "What is very important for me — for us (the EU) — is that the whole process be overseen by the U.N.," Merkel said.
U.N. climate change chief Yvo de Boer said that "when I originally heard the president's speech I was concerned that this initiative would be taking the debate outside the multilateral process.
"But explanations I've received from White House staff indicate that this is meant to take things to a higher level and accelerate the process," he added.
Activists: 'Morally unacceptable'
Still, environmental and liberal groups were quick to criticize the proposals.
“The only way you can get a grip on carbon emissions is to cap and trade them globally. Bush has rejected that, so there are fundamental contradictions in these declarations,” said Greenpeace climate expert Charlie Kronick.
Added Kit Vaughan, a climate expert with the World Wildlife Fund: “This is trying to leapfrog next week's summit and the Bali meeting by aiming at the end of 2008. We don't have time for this. There are lives being lost. It is morally unacceptable.”
Connaughton countered the plan “is actually accelerating” the process. “If we wanted to put things off further, you'd have annual meetings at the U.N. for the next five years. If you want to accelerate it, we do a lot of groundwork in between the U.N. meetings so we can bring the work product to the U.N. meetings.”
But Phil Clapp, head of the National Environmental Trust, also questioned the timing. “The White House is just trying to hide the fact that the president is completely isolated among the G8 leaders by calling vaguely for some agreement next year, right before he leaves office,” he said.
The liberal Center for American Progress called it a “do-nothing” policy.
“Our allies’ pleas for action add to the voices of many big corporations such as Dow, Shell, General Electric and General Motors,” said Daniel Weiss, the group’s climate strategy director. “These and other Fortune 500 companies endorsed a 60 percent to 80 percent reduction in global warming pollution by 2050, the level scientists indicate that we must reach to stave off the worst impacts. Unfortunately, these appeals from his foreign and corporate allies continue to fall on President Bush’s deaf ears.”
U.S. objects to draft
As negotiators try to hammer out the final language in a G8 communique, the United States has blocked an emerging consensus in favor of firm targets. It is unclear whether a last-minute compromise can be reached.
"I think that there is considerable pressure coming from the Europeans for some type of American concessions on the issue of climate change," said Charles Kupchan, professor of international relations at Georgetown University.
"Setting aside Iraq, if there is one issue that creates resentment, it is the sense that the United States is contributing callously, more than any other country, to global warming," Kupchan said.
White House spokesman Tony Snow has said he expects the United States to play a leadership role and emphasized initiatives Bush has already unveiled, including his goal of reducing U.S. gasoline consumption by 20 percent over the next decade.
Acknowledging that climate change exists and must be addressed, Snow told reporters earlier this week that "we believe the most effective way is to go aggressively after technologies that are going to mitigate the problem."
Grant Aldonas, former undersecretary for international trade at the U.S. Commerce Department and now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that while Washington is seen as the G8 summit's "odd man out" on global warming, Bush is used to that.
"I don't think at this stage, having taken the sort of opprobrium of the international community over Kyoto, that the president is going agree to numerical targets at all," he predicted.
The Kyoto Protocol is a U.N.-brokered international pact to cut climate warming emissions, which the Bush administration rejects as a threat to the U.S. economy. China and India were not bound by Kyoto because they are developing nations.
Bush, Blair talk climate
Still, there has been a clear rhetorical shift at the White House which now acknowledges that climate change is a concern.
Meeting this month with Blair, Bush went out of his way to mention that they spent "a lot of time" discussing climate change. He said the United States wanted to help solve what he called a serious issue.
"I think the president actually has been convinced by the science," Aldonas said. He and other analysts said Bush is now facing new domestic pressures to act on climate change.
Annie Petsonk, international counsel for the green group Environmental Defense said G8 negotiators were emerging from a "fog of diplomacy" to realize that the White House position on climate change was not necessarily shared by Congress, the U.S. courts or the American people.
"The fact that Congress is now moving ahead to consider cap and trade legislation (to curb climate-warming emissions) and the U.S. states ... have taken the lead on this issue, they are showing the rest of the world that there is more to America's position on global warming than the administration's 'Just say no' approach," Petsonk said.