By Peter Baker and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 29, 2007
President Bush assured the rest of the world yesterday that he takes the threat of climate change seriously and vowed that the United States "will do its part" to reduce the greenhouse gases that are warming the planet, but he proposed no concrete new initiatives to reach that goal.
The president's speech at a conference of major economic powers represented a symbolic turn for a leader who once expressed doubt about global warming and angered foreign partners by renouncing the Kyoto treaty. After nearly seven years on the defensive, Bush tried to assume a leadership role in crafting "a new international approach" to preserving the world's climate.
Yet he found himself largely isolated at a meeting that he had organized to address the issue, lambasted by foreign officials, U.S. lawmakers and environmental activists who saw his effort as more show than substance. Although critics welcomed his newfound attention to the dangers of shifting climatological conditions, they complained that it would not add up to anything unless he reverses himself and embraces some form of mandatory limit on emissions, something he did not do yesterday.
Instead, he touted technology as the ultimate solution, citing ideas he has promoted for years, such as cleaner coal production; more nuclear, solar and wind power; additional ethanol as a substitute for gasoline; and increased vehicle fuel-efficiency standards. "I want to get the job done," he told hundreds of envoys, lobbyists and activists. "We have identified a problem. Let's go solve it together."
Bush said he wants to forge an agreement with other heads of state by next summer setting a long-term goal for reducing emissions, but each nation would decide how to meet it. "By setting this goal, we acknowledge there is a problem," he said. "And by setting this goal, we commit ourselves to doing something about it."
The much-anticipated speech disappointed critics looking for more tangible proposals. Daniel J. Weiss, an analyst at the liberal Center for American Progress, said Bush essentially was relying "on waving a magic technology wand" with measures that "won't make a dent in global warming." John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA, said Bush's speech underscored "his do-nothing approach to global warming" and proved that "his position is a lie" that no one believes.
"The president says his goals are aspirational, but his goals are really procrastinational," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of a new House committee on global warming. "The U.N. is saying the planet is urgently sick, and the Bush administration is saying, 'Take two aspirin and call me when I leave office.' "
Everton Vargas, the head of Brazil's delegation, said Bush "didn't bring any new ideas, any new proposals [to] the U.S. position. What we saw was more of a reiteration of what we have heard before." John Ashton, Britain's special representative for climate change, said "what has emerged at this conference, and also at the United Nations, is how isolated the administration is now on this issue, especially on the issue of mandatory targets."
Some delegates said they must turn to Congress for leadership. Environmental Defense President Fred Krupp drew extended applause at the conference when he called for a mandatory U.S. limit on carbon dioxide emissions. "The delegates came with all eyes towards the United States to see if there's movement, and they found out there is movement -- it's in Congress," he said.
Delegates plotted climate strategy with lawmakers, with European delegates urging senators to pass a cap-and-trade system before U.S. climate talks open in Bali, Indonesia, in December. Markey and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) plan to lead congressional delegations to the Bali talks.
The conference represented the most serious effort Bush has made to play an international leadership role on climate change. As a candidate in 2000, he expressed doubt that human activity was responsible for global warming. After taking office, he renounced the Kyoto treaty and broke a campaign promise to impose mandatory reductions in power plants' carbon dioxide emissions. Since then, his views have evolved to the point where now, nearly seven years into his presidency, he has decided to make a major push to find an international agreement to replace Kyoto when it expires in 2012.
The two-day White House conference that ended yesterday brought in envoys from 15 other major polluting nations, including European powers, Japan, Russia, Canada, Australia and South Africa. Especially important was the participation of China and India, the world's most populous nations, which were exempt from Kyoto although they produce increasing amounts of greenhouse gases.
Bush cited their exemption when he repudiated Kyoto, saying that any real solution had to include such large economies and expressing concern about the impact on the U.S. economy. Still, a study released this week by Duke University researchers underscored the singular role of the United States, concluding that it will have to account for one-third of the world's greenhouse gas reductions by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change.
In his address yesterday, Bush said warming can be addressed without jeopardizing economic prosperity and called climate change and energy security "two of the great challenges of our times." No longer, he said, are those two priorities mutually exclusive: "Today we know better. These challenges share a common solution -- technology."
The president's talk was more a defense of his record than a specific roadmap for the future. Other than a new fund to finance clean energy projects in developing countries, he announced no new initiatives. Instead, he touted the $18 billion he has devoted to developing new technology and his plan to reduce the projected use of gasoline in the United States by 20 percent in 10 years through alternative fuels and increased fuel efficiency.
If nothing else, Bush's language represented a stark change from seven years ago. "Our understanding of climate change has come a long way," he said, citing a report that concluded that rising global temperatures are "caused largely by human activities."