By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 17, 2005
Bush administration officials working behind the scenes have succeeded in weakening key sections of a proposal for joint action by the eight major industrialized nations to curb climate change.
Under U.S. pressure, negotiators in the past month have agreed to delete language that would detail how rising temperatures are affecting the globe, set ambitious targets to cut carbon dioxide emissions and set stricter environmental standards for World Bank-funded power projects, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post. Negotiators met this week in London to work out details of the document, which is slated to be adopted next month at the Group of Eight's annual meeting in Scotland.
The administration's push to alter the G-8's plan on global warming marks its latest effort to edit scientific or policy documents to accord with its position that mandatory carbon dioxide cuts are unnecessary. Under mounting international pressure to adopt stricter controls on heat-trapping gas emissions, Bush officials have consistently sought to modify U.S. government and international reports that would endorse a more aggressive approach to mitigating global warming.
Last week, the New York Times reported that a senior White House official had altered government documents to emphasize the uncertainties surrounding the science on global warming. That official, White House Council on Environmental Quality chief of staff Phillip Cooney, left the administration last Friday to take a public relations job with oil giant Exxon Mobil, a leading opponent of mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
The wording of the international document, titled "Climate Change, Clean Energy and Sustainable Development," will help determine what, if any, action the G-8 countries will take as a group to combat global warming. Every member nation except the United States has pledged to bring its greenhouse gas emissions down to 1990 levels by 2012 as part of the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- who currently heads the G-8 -- is trying to coax the United States into adopting stricter climate controls.
In preparation for the summit, negotiators are trying to work out the wording of statements on climate change and other issues that leaders of all eight nations are willing to endorse. The language is not final, but the documents show that a number of deletions have been made at U.S. insistence.
Although the new statement by G-8 leaders may not dramatically alter the other nations' policies on global warming, what it says could mark a shift for the United States. (The other G-8 members are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia.) U.S. officials pressed negotiators to drop sections of the report that highlight some problems tied to global warming, warn of more frequent droughts and floods, and commit a specific dollar amount to promoting carbon sequestration in developing countries.
One deleted section, for example, initially cited "increasingly compelling evidence of climate change, including rising ocean and atmospheric temperatures, retreating ice sheets and glaciers, rising sea levels, and changes to ecosystems." It added: "Inertia in the climate system means that further warming is inevitable. Unless urgent action is taken, there will be a growing risk of adverse effects on economic development, human health and the natural environment, and of irreversible long-term changes to our climate and oceans."
Instead, U.S. negotiators substituted a sentence that reads, "Climate change is a serious long term challenge that has the potential to affect every part of the globe."
James L. Connaughton, who heads the Council on Environmental Quality, said the United States was in "extremely constructive discussions on preparing leadership text for the G-8 meeting" that would outline the world's climate change problem in a "succinct and strong" manner.
"It's very important to view [the deletions] in context," Connaughton said in an interview. "The overall context is one of strong consensus about a shared commitment to practical action, as well as defined management strategies."
But environmentalists and Democrats criticized the administration for trying to water down the international coalition's initiative.
"The administration is pursuing a dangerous 'ostrich' policy: put your head in the sand and pretend nothing's happening," Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said in an interview.
Some advocates are urging the seven other G-8 members to adopt their own global warming plan rather than accept a milder statement that they say would provide the Bush administration with political cover.
"The U.S. will just not budge," said Hans J.H. Verolme, director of the World Wildlife Fund's U.S. climate change program. "We'd rather not have a deal than have a deal that lets George Bush off the hook."
Bush's top science adviser, John Marburger, said he is "impatient and frustrated" with such charges, because the administration is seeking to reduce carbon dioxide emissions through technological advances and other voluntary measures.
"From the beginning, this administration has acknowledged the Earth is getting warmer and we're going to have to take responsibility for our emissions," Marburger said. Critics claim the White House believes "climate change is not happening, which is not true."
Several officials involved in the negotiations said none of the document's wording is fixed, and it could change before the leaders adopt a final version for the summit. Connaughton emphasized that the administration's suggested changes address the threat of rising temperatures and offer several proposals to mitigate climate change as well as air pollution.
"We are looking for economy of expression in a leadership text," he said.
The controversy follows recent charges by several climate specialists that Bush appointees are exerting undue political influence on federal global warming documents.
Last week, Rick S. Piltz, a policy expert and former Democratic congressional aide who worked until March in the federal office coordinating climate change, released documents showing that Cooney, the White House official, had edited the office's documents to highlight higher temperature's benefits and uncertainties surrounding global warming. Before joining the administration, Cooney was an oil lobbyist.
In December, the administration issued new guidelines calling for federal officials to have final sign-off on a series of climate change assessment. Several experts objected that the requirement undermines their independence, and senior scientist Eric Sundquist of the U.S. Geological Survey resigned as lead author on one report in protest.
In a May 12 letter from his personal e-mail account, Sundquist said the new rules may make it difficult "to communicate the best independent scientific judgment to decision makers."
NOAA Deputy Administrator James R. Mahoney, who is overseeing the government's 21 periodic climate assessments, said these concerns were unfounded because the government will publish the full reports before political appointees have a chance to alter them.
Researcher Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.