The President's summit shows a willingness to take global warming seriously. But don't expect much more than that
For President George W. Bush, climate change is one of those pesky issues that he would love to see just go away. International diplomats say that when the topic of global warming comes up, Bush appears annoyed and has expressed exasperation that the issue still garners so much attention. After all, the White House position has been consistent from the very start of Bush's tenure: The U.S. will not require mandatory reductions in emissions of the so-called greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, that scientists say are warming the Earth. Bush, the self-proclaimed decider, has decided.
But climate change won't go away. The subject keeps arising because the scientific community has amassed powerful evidence that the problem is real. The consensus is that the world needs to take major steps soon to prevent the now-familiar litany of potential consequences, such as rising sea levels, more droughts and hurricanes, and heat waves. Meanwhile, much of the planet has already agreed to binding commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And at major international meetings, such as recent G8 confabs, world leaders have taken Bush to task for U.S. intransigence on the issue.
For years, Bush's response was to refuse to talk about it. But his tune changed this year, under growing pressure. The Administration has grudgingly accepted that the Earth is warming and that human activities might be to blame. And in the most concrete sign of growing international pressure, Bush convened an international summit on climate change in Washington on Sept. 27-28 to explore a new "process" for moving forward.
New Summit Better than No Summit?
However, "no one knows what that means," says Steve Sawyer, former executive director of Greenpeace International and a veteran climate negotiator. "But it's better than a sharp stick in the eye"—the general view of the Bush Administration's previous responses to questions of its climate policy. "And the fact that this conversation is happening at this time in this town is a good thing," Sawyer says.
In particular, the White House's new willingness to talk about being a "leader" on climate change and about formulating a process for moving forward means that a discussion has finally begun. "If the White House says they are going to lead, we can now ask, 'Where are you going?' " explains José Alberto Garibaldi of Energeia in Mexico, an organization that seeks to enhance dialogue between researchers and government in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.
But other than that somewhat intangible change, expect no new policies from the Bush Administration as the result of this meeting. In fact, most observers expect no movement on the issue until 2009, when a new President assumes power. "Any high-level discussion is important," say Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust. "But no serious progress will emerge from the same conversation that we've had since Bush took over. All we've heard are the same voluntary measures that have failed."
Policy Should Drive Technology
From its beginning, the Bush Administration has argued that technology development is the key to tackling climate change. Once new technologies, such as capturing carbon dioxide from coal power plants and storing it in the ground, are available, then people will put them to use. Environmentalists charge that this is not just the wrong approach, it's also a delaying tactic. And ironically for the generally pro-business White House, the Bush policy is being attacked by many in American business as well. A number of prominent companies, including General Motors (GM), General Electric (GE), DuPont, BP (BP), Shell (RDSB), and PepsiCo (PEP), have joined together in a group, called the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), that backs a drastic 80% cut in emissions by 2050.
Why? Because many CEOs are now convinced that curbs on emissions of fossil fuels and other greenhouse gases are inevitable. What they need more than anything is long-term certainty about the price that will be put on carbon emissions, so they can start planning now. If the cost of carbon will be high, for instance, it makes no sense to build new coal plants. Instead, it would be better for utilities to put their investment into wind, solar, and other non-fossil fuel sources. Once those policy signals about the price of carbon are in place, the needed technology will be developed quickly.
Indeed, the European Union and other parts of the world have already committed to reducing emissions by signing on to the Kyoto Protocol. That, in turn, has created a market for carbon emissions and emissions-reductions technology that the U.S. is largely missing out on. Former President Bill Clinton said on Monday that the U.S. has missed the biggest job-creation engine in years by ignoring the need to combat climate change through reducing greenhouse gas emissions. "It's economic folly for the U.S. not to be participating in the carbon markets," says Kate Hampton, head of policy at Climate Change Capital, an investment banking group in Britain. Investors have poured $5 billion into cleaner projects around the world, in order to get credit for the resulting emissions reductions, she says. While the U.S. twiddles its thumbs, "others are out there hoovering up the cheap carbon credits," she says. And if the world now backs away from mandatory rules, "it would put those billions of capital at risk," she says.
Legislation Likely to Stall
At the same time the Administration is holding its meeting and making vague promises about a new process, there's action at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Congress is working on legislation that would call for mandatory curbs. But as long as the White House is opposed to it, such legislation will be difficult to pass, says Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy Committee. "It is difficult for Congress to tackle an issue of this size over the objections of the executive branch. It requires too significant a policy change to legislate over the President's strenuous objections."
So unless George Bush makes a radical shift, which no one expects, the most likely outcome of this meeting is that the world will merely step up its pestering of the White House on climate change.