Is there common ground "beyond Kyoto"?

The G-8's climate change agreement didn't lead to concrete action, but it may have advanced the cause.

Published July 8, 2005 6:31PM (EDT)

We should have known better than to hope George W. Bush had experienced a true change of heart on climate change. His words leading up to the G-8 summit gave cause for optimism that the U.S. was ready to agree to some form of mandatory steps in curtailing greenhouse gas emissions. That foolish optimism was dispelled Friday when G-8 leaders announced their agreement, which contains a lot of pretty rhetoric but zero in the way of concrete action.

In an appearance earlier this week with the Danish prime minister, Bush asked those in attendance to prick up their ears. "Listen," he said, "I recognize that the surface of the Earth is warmer and that an increase in greenhouse gases caused by humans is contributing to the problem."

And a few minutes later: "Listen, the United States, for national security reasons and economic security reasons, needs to diversify away from fossil fuels ... There's no doubt in my mind that we'll be driving a different kind of automobile within a reasonable period of time -- one powered by hydrogen."

Bush and his advisors had developed a new set of talking points. Because the Kyoto Protocol, which called for mandatory reductions in greenhouse emissions for developed nations, would have "wrecked" the U.S. economy, in Bush's words, it was time to move into "the post-Kyoto era," where developing but powerful nations like China and India will be made to participate. ("What we're trying to do is really move beyond Kyoto," Stephen Hadley, Bush's National Security Advisor, told reporters.)

The president can't be faulted for worrying about jobs and the economy, and he has a point with his other main objection to the Kyoto accord, that it doesn't include nations like China, giving non-Kyoto nations an economic advantage over developed nations. But to what extent are these legitimate concerns and not excuses, rationalizations meant to obscure an intractable position?

Both Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the point of the summit was to find common ground between the U.S. and the rest of the G-8 nations. But to Bush, "common ground" generally tends to mean, "where I'm standing." So in advance of the conference, administration officials set about weakening the language of the accord, downplaying the certainty that climate change is occurring and the severity of its environmental impacts.

In spite of the disappointing result, Blair should be credited for making climate change a focus of the summit (though Thursday's terror bombings wrenched much of that focus away) and for initiating a dialogue, which will continue at a meeting of industrialized nations set for Nov. 1. Bush was already on the record as saying climate change was a threat, but you had to look hard to find it behind the administration's systematic efforts to suppress scientific data on global warming. By establishing climate change as a thrust of the G-8 conference, Blair forced the president to acknowledge the threat of global warming on the largest possible stage. Perhaps his Republican supporters took their fingers out of their ears long enough to hear it. We'll find out when the Kyoto accord expires in 2012.

By Aaron Kinney

Aaron Kinney is a writer in San Francisco. He has a blog.

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