Issue Date: June 18, 2007
THERE ARE GOOD REASONS to be skeptical of President George W. Bush's recent embrace of global climate change as a serious policy issue. The White House trumpeted his May 31 speech on the subject as having "announced U.S. support for an effort to develop a new post-2012 framework on climate change."
The White House statement said, "The plan recognizes that it is essential that a new framework include both major developed and developing economies that generate the majority of greenhouse gas emissions and consume the most energy, and that climate change must be addressed in a way that enhances energy security and promotes economic growth." The President's proposal includes holding a meeting this year of the largest greenhouse gas emitters to work out the new framework by the end of 2008.
Observers seemed to think that the plan marked something of a watershed. The Washington Post carried a story on its front page with the headline "Bush Signals Shift on Warming" that began: "President Bush sought yesterday to take the initiative on global warming talks in which the administration had previously been a reluctant participant, offering to launch negotiations aimed at having the world's most prolific polluters agree on long-term goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions."
But President Bush's speech was given a week before the Group of Eight meeting June 6-8 in Germany, a meeting at which German Chancellor Angela Merkel planned to offer a resolution that would commit the world's industrialized nations to limiting the rise in global temperature to 2° C above the preindustrial level and cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 50% from 1990 levels by 2050. Prior to the meeting and the President's speech, the U.S. had already communicated that the German proposal was unacceptable in a memo that was leaked and posted online by Greenpeace (C&EN, June 11, page 15).
At a press briefing after the President's speech, James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, was asked: "Will the new framework consist of binding commitments or voluntary commitments?" He answered: "It will move similar to the current system. In this instance, you have a long-term aspirational goal that sends a clear signal that we want significant reductions in greenhouse gases. And then what we're calling on is that each country will develop their national strategies for the first phase of trying to meet that goal."
When pressed on whether the targets would be binding commitments or voluntary, Connaughton said: "Well, I want to be careful about the word 'voluntary,' because we do these kinds of goals all the time, international agreements. It's the implementing mechanisms that become binding. And in this instance we are expecting that each nation will make a commitment to a national strategy to achieve this."
I'm glad he cleared that up.
Forgive me for being cynical, but the Administration's approach seems to have been designed primarily to undercut real progress on climate change at the G-8 meeting and delay actions that would be required if binding commitments to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, like those required by the Kyoto protocol (which expires in 2012) or Merkel's proposal, were adopted.
At the summit, a compromise was reached that embraced the Bush proposal and committed the U.S. to consider the German plan, but that was the diplomats' way of avoiding embarrassment over an impasse.
It is time for the U.S. to take concrete actions that will signal a commitment to deal with climate change. Eighteen months of talk about "aspirational goals" is not that signal.
We know what needs to be done. The cost of spewing CO2 into the atmosphere has to be incorporated into the marketplace through a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system with a binding national ceiling on greenhouse gas emissions. Producers of alternative energy need to know they will make money selling their products. Binding commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to specific levels are a first step, and the U.S. should have joined the other G-8 nations in adopting them.
Thanks for reading.
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