WASHINGTON -- President Bush, who has long refused to commit the United States to specific limits on pollutants contributing to global warming, took a new turn yesterday in proposing that the U.S. and other leading nations set, by the end of next year, "a long-term global goal for reducing greenhouse gases."
That is what the president will propose to a summit for leaders of the Group of Eight major industrial nations in Germany next week, along with an appeal to match the U.S. in a drastic increase in funding to fight AIDS in Africa and in a promotion of freer international trade.
But with its lack of specifics, the president's plan for addressing climate change falls far short of what leaders of Germany and other nations hoped to deliver at the G-8 summit in the Baltic Sea resort of Heiligendamm, especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel, an ardent advocate for averting global warming.
At the same time, European wariness of the continuing U.S. military involvement in Iraq - along with Russian concerns about a U.S. buildup of missile defenses in Eastern Europe - could contribute to an environment in which the American president, nearing the end of his tenure, will have difficulty mustering support for his initiatives, U.S. and European analysts say.
"The Bush administration is in a very bad situation," said Philippe Moreau Defarges, senior fellow at the Institute for International Relations in Paris. "It seems that Mr. Bush is really in a quagmire in Iraq and nobody is really ready to listen to him. ... It's too late for Mr. Bush. I think a lot of leaders are waiting for the next president."
Bush has long resisted strong action on climate change. But polls show that Americans, including some in the religious community, increasingly view it as a problem, and recent reports have found some success in limiting emissions within the U.S.
Presidential candidates of both parties are embracing plans to address global warming, and Bush might be seeking a positive platform and legacy to offset a bitter Iraq war.
Even so, his plan is relatively vague by the standards of European leaders and is likely to disappoint those who are ready to commit to specifics this year, experts say.
"The reality is that everyone knows the Bush administration has only 18 months left," said Phil Clapp, president of the Washington-based National Environmental Trust. "What Europe and Canada and the rest of the G-8 are trying to do is set up negotiations that will conclude" with Bush's successor. "So with whatever president is sitting in the White House, from whatever party, they will be starting anew."
The White House rejects the criticism, insisting that Bush is accelerating a global agreement among nations that have long been at odds. As James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, put it, "Let's speed up the clock, and in the 18 months, see if we can get agreement on the basic elements of this framework."
Bush said he is ready to start negotiating an international framework on climate protection now, not only with the other G-8 nations - Germany, France, Italy, Britain, Canada, Russia and Japan - but also with fast-growing industrial powers such as China, India and Brazil. The White House proposes to invite a dozen or more nations responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions to a series of negotiations aimed at framing global and national strategies for reaching it during the next 18 months.
"The United States takes this issue seriously," Bush said yesterday in an address at the headquarters of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Under his plan, he said, the U.S. and other nations would set a worldwide goal for reducing greenhouse gases, while each country would establish specific national goals.
Since the start of his administration, Bush has refused to let the U.S. join the Kyoto Protocol for the United Nations Convention on Climate Change. More than 150 other nations have signed a treaty requiring nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5 percent by 2012. For bigger industrial nations, that involves a 15 percent cut.
Bush has rejected this as an unfair throttle on U.S. economic development, since some economic rivals such as China are not a part of the Kyoto accord. Yet the president has increasingly concluded that global warming is a problem and that people are partly responsible for it, and he has grown more receptive to negotiations.
With a goal of reaching a new agreement well before Kyoto expires in 2012, Connaughton refused to discuss target dates or specific reductions until the proposed talks get under way.
At the G-8 summit starting Wednesday, some European leaders are ready to commit to a 20 percent cut in energy consumption over 20 years and a pledge to prevent the average temperature of the Earth from increasing by more than 2 degrees Centigrade. But in talks leading to the summit, U.S. negotiators have refused to accept those numbers.
Mark Silva writes for the Chicago Tribune.