On the eve of the Group of Eight (G-8) summit in Germany June 6-8, President Bush is trying to gain the diplomatic initiative on climate change. For the moment, most political actors and expert analysts remain skeptical.
"The new American initiative seems an admission that its previous strategy has failed," says The Economist magazine in its analysis of Mr. Bush's proposal.
Referring to plans put forth by German Chancellor Angela Merkel (who will host the G-8 meeting), other European countries, and the European Union, the Economist observes:
"All these proposals are much more ambitious than America's, and it will take a lengthy debate – and perhaps another president – to reconcile them."
Under the Bush plan, "the US would convene meetings over the next year among the world's 15 greatest polluters," reports The Times of London. "These would set their own, looser goals for reducing emissions – but allow individual nations to develop different strategies for meeting them."
The plan also involves cutting tariff barriers and sharing environmental technology. "It's important to ensure that we get results, and so we will create a strong and transparent system for measuring each country's performance," Bush said.
But at this point at least, the plan lacks specifics. Asked if the commitment to cut greenhouse gases would be voluntary or binding, White House environment adviser James Connaughton described it to reporters as "a long-term, aspirational goal."
Despite (or perhaps because of) the relative vagueness of the Bush announcement, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the president's closest foreign ally, was quick to laud Bush's move. During a visit to South Africa, Mr. Blair told Britain's Sky News:
"For the first time [the United States] 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."
During his term in office the outgoing British prime minister failed to push the US administration into taking a tougher stand on global warming.
Seeing a potential diplomatic opening, Chancellor Merkel called Bush's announcement "an important statement on the way to Heiligendamm," referring to the German resort where the leaders of the G-8 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, Britain, and the United States) will gather next week with climate change as the main item on the agenda.
The plan put forth by Ms. Merkel for G-8 consideration goes much further than Bush has been willing to accept. It pledges to slow the rise in average temperatures this century to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, and to increase energy efficiency in power generation and transportation by 20 percent by 2020.
"As far as the concrete formulations for Heiligendamm are concerned, we will have to make significantly more progress," the German Chancellor said.
"What is positive is that we can see from [Bush's] speech that … nobody can ignore the question of climate change," Merkel told reporters.
In a June 1 editorial, The New York Times was less sanguine. It allowed that Bush's rhetoric was "different and heartening," and that his efforts to include China and India in any solution were on the mark. But the newspaper added:
"Given Mr. Bush's history of denial and obstructionism when it comes to climate change, there are good reasons to be cynical about this sudden enthusiasm, coming as it does on the eve of the meeting of the Group of 8 industrialized nations."
Some environmental groups were equally critical.
Said David Doniger, climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council in an Associated Press story:
"It is nothing less than embarrassing that three of the world's biggest oil companies are calling for tougher measures than the White House."
Mr. Doniger was referring to BP, ConocoPhillips, and Shell, which have joining the US Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of corporations and environmental organizations pushing for binding legal limits on heat-trapping pollution – limits that Bush rejects.
On the other hand, Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, says he finds the Bush proposal "very encouraging": He told the Reuters news agency:
"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."
The next major international climate meeting, to be held in Bali, Indonesia, in December, is scheduled to work on steps to address global warming beyond the 2012 time frame set by the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The Kyoto accord, which set binding targets on 35 industrial countries to reduce carbon emissions by an average 5 percent from 1990 levels by 2012, has never been ratified by the US.
On Capitol Hill, opposition lawmakers focused on climate policy weighed in.
In February and April of this year, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California, who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, invited the President to convene a summit of the nations that emit the most greenhouse gases.
"Today he has accepted that challenge," she said May 31 on the committee's website. "I stand ready to assist him with the summit and continuing negotiations in any way I can."
Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts, who chairs the new House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, had a more direct response, as noted in a story from the Environment News Service.
"It's vitally important for America and this president to re-engage internationally on this issue, and agree to binding targets for reducing heat-trapping pollution. Instead, all that President Bush is willing to do is engage in fruitless discussions until the very end of his administration, leaving his successor with the task of actually doing something."