Climate change is on the minds of world leaders at two high-level summits this week. The first meeting, at the United Nations, delivered the expected: a surfeit of urgent talk and a paucity of promises to act. Early readings on the second, to be held at the White House today and tomorrow, were that it would continue that theme.
In comments to the UN climate summit Monday, Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon couldn't have been more clear about what he felt was at stake. "The time for doubt has passed," he said, urging quick measures to prevent disaster. He continued:
"I am convinced that climate change, and what we do about it, will define us, our era, and ultimately the global legacy we leave for future generations.... We hold the future in our hands. Together, we must ensure that our grandchildren will not have to ask why we failed to do the right thing."
In a speech, global warming activist Al Gore urged the assembled presidents and prime ministers (President Bush did not attend) that they should personally take part in a meeting to be held in Bali, Indonesia, this December that aims to set new mandatory goals for nations to cut greenhouse gases. He added, as Reuters reported:
"I would like to propose ... that the heads of state around the world call an emergency session of this gathering for the beginning of next year to review the results of Bali.... [They should] continue to meet at the head-of-state level every three months until a treaty is successfully arrived at. We cannot continue business as usual."
Though the meeting appeared to be all talk and no action, a subtle but important shift may be occurring among developing countries, who are showing a new level of serious interest in the subject. Richard Kinley, deputy executive director of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, said in a lead story in this newspaper Monday:
"Among a number of developing countries, we're seeing a growing realization that they have to take a new approach for their own well-being. And the leading example of that is China.... What we hear more now is talk of incentives, of the right investment and technology flows into the developing countries, and that is bringing the two sides closer together.... That's crucial, because it's clearly only through international cooperation that this challenge can be addressed."
Meanwhile, the White House convenes a two-day meeting of the 16 biggest greenhouse-gas-emitting countries today with Mr. Bush expected to speak tomorrow. US officials are trying to set low expectations, the Los Angeles Times reports, calling it only the first in an expected series of meetings. "Those are not issues you discuss and resolve in two days," said Dan Price, a deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs.
What remains clear is that the United States continues to be the straw that stirs the drink on climate change. Sigmar Gabriel, Germany's environment minister, called Bush's meeting a big step, according to the Times. "The US must lead," he said, not just because it's the No. 1 greenhouse-gas emitter but because it has "the most dynamic economy, the biggest field of research." Added Denmark's environment minister, Connie Hedegaard: "China, India, they will not do anything without the US."
But Democratic congressional leaders want that US leadership to be shown at the UN, not through ad hoc gatherings. Senate majority leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged the president this weeknot to set up a separate, competing path to international agreements that they say would result in an ineffective approach. In a letter to Bush they added:
"We call upon you to use this occasion to announce your support for mandatory national and international limits.... "Your Administration has been pursuing an alternative approach based on purely aspirational targets and non-binding pledges of national action.... This approach ...cannot succeed in staving off catastrophic climate change impacts."
This week's meetings coincide with a new poll of people in 21 countries showing that large majorities believe that human activity causes global warming and that strong action must be taken quickly. The poll, conducted for the BBC World Service, showed that about 79 percent of people in both developing as well as developed countries say that "human activity, including industry and transportation, is a significant cause of climate change." About 65 percent also say that "it is necessary to take major steps starting very soon" to combat it.
Said Doug Miller, president of the international polling firm GlobeScan, which conducted the poll:
"The strength of these findings makes it difficult to imagine a more supportive public opinion environment for national leaders to commit to climate action."