Bush's cold view of climate change

Leading climate researcher Peter Goldmark says the administration is defying headwinds of progress on controlling greenhouse gases.

By Gregor Peter Schmitz
September 28, 2007 2:25PM (UTC)
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President Bush has invited the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitters to attend a two-day conference in Washington that began Thursday. American climate researcher Peter Goldmark argues that the meeting is little more than a P.R. stunt by the White House. But despite Bush's tactics on climate change, he says, the environmental movement focused on tackling the problem is gaining momentum across the U.S. Goldmark directs the Climate and Air program for the influential advocacy group Environmental Defense. Previously, he served as president of the Rockefeller Foundation, where he pushed the organization to increase its focus on environmental issues.

Many critics are skeptical of Bush's climate conference. They think it's just a way to undermine the efforts taken within the framework of the United Nations.


Some Europeans say it is just a show. And, unfortunately, most of the signs we see today tell us that it will be largely for domestic consumption. We will not see a change in the administration's philosophy that every nation should find its own approach, we will not see a real U.S. commitment to binding agreements or caps. I think the Europeans have actually already made up their minds about the conference by not showing up with their big guns. Bush tried to get high-level participation, but they are sending their ministers and not their prime ministers or presidents.

But in some areas, such as the commitment to energy-efficiency, the Bush administration has recently made a few concessions. Some also saw the G-8 summit in Heiligendamm as a step in the right direction. Were they wrong?

I would really be hard-pressed to give this administration credit for anything but words. Even in areas where they promised change -- such as the "technological revolution" that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice highlighted again in her speech at the United Nations this week -- the words far exceed the action. When you check the numbers you realize that the money they are spending for more climate-friendly research is actually very low. And the G-8 summit was certainly not a breakthrough. As a matter of fact, from the White House point of view, it was a victory. The White House didn't agree to anything specific, quantitative or binding -- just hopes and aspirations. Tony Blair tried, Angela Merkel tried, but the American president managed to water things down again. It seems the Europeans always come in with rosy faces and eager hopes, but they get nothing in return.


What about the general public in the U.S.? Has the Bush White House isolated itself with this issue?

It is very isolated. The overwhelming majority of the American public wants the U.S. to do something about climate change. Recent developments, particularly Al Gore's "Inconvenient Truth" movie, have added a new sense of urgency. People here have actually supported some measures for quite a while, but it has never really been on top of the agenda. That has changed in the past few years. Many of the Republican presidential candidates no longer support President Bush's climate change policies.

Prominent American governors, most notably Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, are also heading in a different direction.


There is so much happening on the regional level in the U.S. Over the past few years, 15 states have adopted Californian-style laws regulating car emissions. The automobile industry challenged the laws, but a court ruling last week upheld the law that California passed. That will affect more than 30 percent of all cars in the U.S. This year, my organization Environmental Defense was involved in a spectacular case in Texas. A huge utilities firm wanted to build 11 new dirty plants. Environmental Defense protested and got a lot of support from local politicians and citizens -- in Texas, the home state of the president! We made so much noise that when a leverage-buyout firm was planning to buy the company this spring, they offered us a deal in order to build a new consensus and to quell more controversy. They agreed to fewer dirty plants, binding caps in national legislation, more energy efficiency and measures to offset the carbon. It was quite a deal for the environment!

But won't the support of the American public fade once people realize that a serious policy change would affect the "American way of life" -- one that embraces high energy consumption, large houses, gas-guzzling cars?


All our studies show that people understand that if you start now, the impact will be minimal. If you wait too long, it will have a tremendous impact. People and politicians will understand that. By the way, climate change is on its way toward becoming a real campaign issue in the U.S. In 10 climate bills that Congress discussed, you almost always find a provision that requires countries that do not act to reduce emissions by 2020 -- like China -- to compensate for the energy in certain goods exported to the U.S. by buying "international reserve allowances" from the U.S. or Europe. Imagine being a congressman from Illinois where many jobs are outsourced to China -- such a provision is a real campaign winner.

China is the other most important polluter. But when pressed to do more about climate change, Beijing points to the lack of leadership from the American side.

The U.S. administration would have to introduce binding caps first to show its own leadership on the issue -- and then it needs to enter into serious negotiations with China. The Chinese just love all the current talk of "voluntary action." They are tough negotiators, they see the effects of environmental pollution in their country and they know they will have to act on climate change soon. They also know they will have to deal with a more determined U.S. president in the near future. So they are trying to get away with these "voluntary targets" now.


What will happen to the U.N.'s Bali process (the negotiations to create a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol) after the U.N. meeting and the Bush conference? Is it dead on arrival?

The darkest interpretation is that the White House conference is intended to derail Bali. None of us know if this is true or not. However, one should not think that this administration is really afraid of Bali, either. They know it will be a conference with 180 nations having to agree on an outcome. Why should they be afraid? Experience suggests that if they want to, this administration will find a way to water it down.

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Gregor Peter Schmitz

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