Bush Proposes Goals on Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Appeared in New York Times, June 1, 2007
By Carol Gay Stolberg
President Bush, fending off international accusations that he was ignoring climate change, proposed for the first time on Thursday to set "a long-term global goal" for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and he called on other high-polluting nations to join the United States in negotiations aimed at reaching an agreement by the end of next year.
If carried through, such an agreement would be the first in which the United States, the world's biggest source of the emissions that scientists say are warming the planet, has committed itself to a specific target for cutting them.
It would be a major shift for Mr. Bush, who has resisted such absolute goals in part for economic reasons. The president has also steadfastly rejected the so-called Kyoto Protocol, which limits greenhouse gas emissions, on the grounds that two other major polluters--China and India--are not bound by the accord in the same way as the United States would be if it joined. The proposal, delivered in a speech at the United States Agency for International Development here, reflects the difficulties the Bush administration is facing in grappling with climate change as the scientific consensus has continued to build in favor of action to control the buildup of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.
"In recent years, science has deepened our understanding of climate change and opened new possibilities for confronting it," Mr. Bush said, previewing the climate change package he is to present when he meets the leaders of the Group of 8 industrialized nations in Germany next week. "The United States takes this issue seriously."
The speech was greeted with intense skepticism by environmental advocates and some European officials.
Some critics accused Mr. Bush of trying to hijack continuing environmental talks like those under the Kyoto treaty by substituting his own program, which even if successful would not bear fruit until he is about to leave office in 2009.
And, they said, the president delivered no clear statement on what steps the United States would take to limit emissions over the next 10 to 20 years, while he was working on long-term goals for the next 50 years and beyond.
Even those goals, said James L. Connaughton, the president's top environmental adviser, are "aspirational." They would not be binding unless individual nations chose to bind themselves.
"There is no more time for longwinded talks about unenforceable long-term goals," said David Doniger, climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group in Washington. "We need to get a serious commitment to cut emissions now and in the G-8."
The speech on Thursday was the latest in a series of shifts on climate change by Mr. Bush. In July 2005, he offered his first explicit acknowledgment that humans were contributing to the problem of global warming. This year, for the first time, he mentioned climate change in his State of the Union address.
In one sense, the change in tack has been forced on Mr. Bush by scientific advances in the understanding of how greenhouse gas emissions contribute to global warming. But it is also an example of the kind of policy adjustment that is becoming increasingly common in the second half of his second term. Another example is the announcement this week of economic sanctions to prod Sudan on Darfur.
The White House seems determined to alter the president's image on climate change before he leaves office in January 2009. The issue is a high priority for two of Mr. Bush's closest European allies--Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany--and with Democrats now controlling Congress, the president also faces domestic pressure to act.
Mr. Bush promised to convene a series of meetings, beginning in the fall, with 10 to 15 countries that produce the most greenhouse gas emissions, including China and India. Each country would establish midterm national targets for reducing emissions over the next 10 to 20 years, while working together to set a longer-term goal.
The talks also would bring together industry leaders, Mr. Bush said, so that the countries could work with them to pool their knowledge and promote investment in energy-efficient technologies, including solar and wind energy, clean coal and nuclear power. But each country would be free to set its own goals, and there would be no binding international framework for enforcement.
"The United States is taking the lead, and that's the message I'm going to take to the G-8," Bush said.
But how well that message will be received remains to be seen. Germany, backed by Britain and now Japan, has already proposed cutting global greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2050. Mrs. Merkel, who holds the presidency of the European Union and will be the host of the Group of 8 meeting in the Baltic Sea resort of Heiligendamm, has been pressing the group to adopt the plan, but the United States has rejected it.
Speaking to reporters in Berlin, Mrs. Merkel called Mr. Bush's speech "common ground on which to act," echoing a recent comment she made while visiting him in Washington. "What's positive," she said, is what we can see from the speech that the president made earlier today that nobody can ignore the question of climate change.
But beneath the faint praise there was caution. The second phase of the Kyoto Protocol talks is set to take place in Bali at the end of this year, and Mr. Bush's alternative forum risks being seen as an attempt to circumvent or even derail those talks.
Mr. Connaughton said the White House envisioned its negotiations taking place in parallel with those talks.
Involving all the parties to the existing Kyoto Protocol and an underlying 1992 climate treaty that the United States is bound by, the Bali negotiations are aimed at deciding what to do next about a problem that international scientific advisers acknowledge will take decades to bring under control and will require intensive policy responses running far beyond Kyoto's timetables, which expire in 2012.
One German official, speaking privately, said the Europeans would resist any plan that would throw the Bali talks off course. "The holistic global approach to climate change is very important to us," he said.
Environmental advocates have been pressing for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions for more than a decade. In 1992, when Mr. Bush's father was president, the United States signed the first climate change treaty, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which committed the world to avoiding dangerous human interference with the climate system but did not mandate any specific steps. The Kyoto Protocol was drafted five years later.
Two independent experts--William K. Reilly, who represented the first President Bush in the 1992 negotiations, and David Victor, a Stanford University law professor whose writings helped provide the underpinnings for Thursday's speech--said that Mr. Bush's plan had merit. But they said it would not gain much ground unless the United States adopted limits on domestic emissions, something the president has been loath to do.
"If you take all of this at face value, and you imagine that they go off and actually do it, then it could be a radically different way of organizing the global effort to control these emissions," Professor Victor said. But he said it would be "very difficult for this to be taken as seriously as it should be taken in the rest of the world without some kind of a clear game plan domestically in the U.S."
Andrew C. Revkin and Mark Landler contributed reporting.
- David G. Victor
Professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies and Director of the School’s new Laboratory on International Law and Regulation (former)
- Climate Change Policy
- New York Times article
- second New York Times article
- The Diane Rehm Show on NPR