Climate, Bush and the G-8

June 6, 2007

Speaking to the Global Leadership Campaign in Washington last week, President Bush announced his intention to convene a meeting of major greenhouse gas-emitting nations to develop, by the end of 2008, an internationally coordinated climate strategy for the post-Kyoto period. Given the reception he received from Democrats and environmentalists, one could be forgiven for thinking he had just reaffirmed his aversion to Kyoto.

David Doniger, policy director of the climate center at the Natural Resources Defense Council, spoke for many when he said: “It’s too late to slide by on vague calls for unenforceable long-term goals. …The president will have no credibility with the countries he wants to bring to the table unless he is committed to specific limits to cap and cut our own global warming pollution.”

Among environmentalists, there is concern that long-term internationally coordinated (and, by definition, voluntary) targets distract from—or worse, undermine—serious attempts to pursue short-term, domestic and legally binding legislation, like the cap-and-trade proposals under consideration in the U.S. Congress.

In fact, these two types of policies are not mutually exclusive. If anything, they are mutually reinforcing. After all, the recent momentum on Capitol Hill, coupled with the additional momentum abroad, might explain, in part, why the administration has felt the need to enter the fray this late in the game. Conversely, greater consensus on long-term global goals will increase (not decrease) the prospects of near-term domestic legislation, particularly if these goals involve emerging economies, like China and India.

But to suggest criticism is misplaced is not to suggest skepticism is unwarranted. Rather it is to suggest the president’s proposal should be evaluated for what it is, rather than for what it is not, and it is clearly not an attempt to get involved, constructively or obstructively, in the messy politics of domestic climate and energy legislation. More likely, it is an attempt to slow the rush to establish a target Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders have advocated for some time—a 2-degree ceiling on the global temperature increase driven by human activities.

This begs an important question: If a 2-degree target is not favorable to the U.S., then what is? It’s unlikely the Bush administration has grappled with this problem long enough to have developed a sophisticated alternative position for purposes of negotiation, but the president’s own remarks—rooted in the longstanding American faith in the power of foreign assistance to benefit both the donor and the recipient—may just provide the right opportunity to develop a sensible U.S. position on long-term climate targets, one consistent with both the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (to which the U.S. is a party) as well as the basic tenets of American foreign policy.

In the same speech in which he announced his new climate agenda, President Bush also reaffirmed his support for development assistance to Africa on the grounds that “when America helps reduce chaos and suffering, we make this country safer, because prosperous nations are less likely to feed resentment and breed violence and export terror.”

But climate change will tend to impede development progress in Africa. In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated in a recent report that by 2020, between 75 million and 250 million people on that continent would experience increased water stress due to climate change and that some regions could experience a decrease in crop yields of up to 50 percent.

By design or not, Africa and climate change are both slated for discussion at the Group of Eight meeting in Heiligendamm, Germany, this week. Attendees will undoubtedly be forced to confront the inseparability of these two issues when thinking about how to design effective policies.

So when Mr. Bush meets with his peers from the other industrialized nations, he should consider our collective commitment to Africa and to the environment. He should then step back and consider both issues together in the context of our own national security. This exercise might provide a basic framework for the U.S. to develop a position on temperature and carbon targets that could be considered alongside the European proposals.

At the end of the day, the two positions might be closer than anyone expects.