Until this week, President Bush's views on climate change were simple: Remedies must not hurt the US economy, should be led by new technologies, and need to include poor countries such as China. Now he's added a specific goal: Growth in US carbon emissions must end by 2025.
That goal falls short of what most climate scientists say is needed to reverse changes in the atmosphere. And in his speech Wednesday, Mr. Bush didn't suggest mandatory action to achieve it. Rather, it's aimed at making it easier to achieve consensus among 17 of the world's largest emitter nations who are meeting this weekend in Paris.
Bush hopes China and other developing nations that stayed out of the 1997 Kyoto treaty will propose similar goals to his. If he succeeds, it could be the president's biggest legacy on global warming.
Bush came into office soon after the Senate rejected the Kyoto treaty by a 95-0 vote. He saw little prospect of Americans sacrificing an energy-rich lifestyle and paying the costs to prevent global warming. Reflecting that mood, Congress was reluctant to take strong action, too. As a result, activists turned to states, courts, and regulators to force Americans to reduce their use of fossil fuels, with little result.
Wealthy economies that did sign onto Kyoto – Europe, Canada, Japan – are now largely failing at achieving the pact's goals. And the UN mechanism set up to let those nations buy their way out of emission caps is faltering over doubts about the quality of carbon-reduction projects in poor nations. Kyoto hasn't proved to be the enticement for poor nations to follow suit.
Bush's alternative strategy of first achieving truly global action appears to be backed by research at the International Monetary Fund. IMF economists say any global approach that doesn't include large and fast-growing economies such as Brazil and India would be costly and politically difficult. The IMF points out that 70 percent of carbon emissions will come from emerging and developing economies over the next 50 years. If all nations don't sign on to higher carbon prices that are equal around the world, the IMF warns, the cost of curbing greenhouse gases will be "at least 50 percent higher."
Bush's global-first strategy may not survive under the next president. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain all propose mandatory emission targets for American polluters even while the US negotiates a post-Kyoto global pact. But will Americans support such stiff measures if China and India also don't pony up? Might voters fear that unilateral US action would be an act of futility?
At the least, the three candidates should be asked if they could do better in looping all nations into acting equally on global warming. And is Bush's goal of ending US emissions growth by 2025 enough of an incentive for China and other nations to follow?
In June, the Senate plans to take up a bill that would cap emissions of power plants. By some estimates, it would reduce US emissions faster than Bush's goal would, but could pinch US economic output by up to 2.6 percent by 2030. Before Americans are asked to make such a sacrifice, they may like to know if other nations are doing the same.
Leadership on global warming isn't just about US lawmakers persuading Americans to pay more for energy use. It includes making sure such sacrifice isn't in vain.