Bush plays for time on climate

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Watching George W. Bush’s administration duck, dodge and dive to avoid doing anything serious about climate change has reminded me of the adage of a 19th century British prime minister. Change? Why change, Lord Salisbury would protest when it was suggested he alter course. Things are bad enough as they are.

Well, things are bad. Recent months have seen a slew of reports from the experts at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They put the science of global warming beyond any reasonable doubt. Before long even US vice-president Dick Cheney and his oil industry friends will have to admit that the earth is round.

Climate change is accelerating: witness higher temperatures, melting ice formations and rising sea levels. The culprits are the greenhouse gases we are pumping out in ever larger quantities. The damage – felt soonest in the poorest parts of the world – will escalate unless we stabilise the atmospheric concentrations.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor and current chair of the Group of Eight industrial nations, wants her fellow leaders to take some modest steps in that direction at their summit next week in the German resort of Heiligendamm. The G8, she believes, should lead an effort to limit the rise in global temperatures to 2°C. Much higher than that, the science tells us, and the effects of climate change tip from the merely dangerous to the catastrophic.

The Germans suggest a target of a 50 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and a 20 per cent improvement in energy efficiency by 2020. The Europeans, incidentally, have already signed up.

There is pragmatism as well as necessity here. The IPCC studies confirm that the economic costs of curbs on carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, are relatively small when weighed against the danger of inaction. The answer is to fix a realistic international price for carbon through a cap-and-trade system.

Time and pressure have at last persuaded Mr Bush to admit the problem. On Thursday, the White House finally agreed that the US could no longer sit on the sidelines. Mr Bush proposed that the countries that discharge the most greenhouse gases – about 15 in all – should agree a global target for emissions by late 2008.

This Damascene conversion should be welcomed. The US president, though, will have to forgive those who greet it with more than a touch of scepticism. Many will consider that it is as much spin as substance – calculated as much to avoid US isolation at the summit as to secure a credible international agreement.

After all, the US administration has been unremittingly hostile to Ms Merkel’s plan. We caught a glimpse of that in the annotations of a senior US official on a leaked draft of the G8 communiqué. Writing in red ink (on another subject it might have been green), the official splutters with indignation at the idea of anything resembling measurable commitments on the part of the US. The proposals for targets and a carbon market are deemed “fundamentally incompatible” with the president’s approach. On that, Mr Bush has not changed his mind – the new plan specifically rules out a global cap-and-trade system.

So there you have it. The administration is prepared to admit the problem. It will also talk about a target, as long as nothing is agreed until the eve of Mr Bush’s departure from the White House. The US will promote energy efficiency and alternative fuel technologies. But firm international targets in an updated Kyoto agreement? Or an international carbon market modelled on, say, California’s experiment? Forget it.

As it happens, Mr Bush is right to say that technology is a vital component in combating global warming. A serious reduction in emissions from electricity generation, for example, depends on the ability to capture the carbon from coal-fired plants. But none of this will happen without a realistic carbon price.

Faced with Mr Bush’s plan for an entirely new, parallel, negotiation, the temptation for Ms Merkel will be to accept a fudge – a watering down of the summit communiqué to something acceptable to the White House. The perverse psychology of these G8 gatherings has it that anything less than a consensus is marked as a failure on the part of the host.

The time, though, has come to stop pretending. Mr Bush has moved. But the White House continues to deny the inconvenient truths of global warming. Ms Merkel and her European and Japanese colleagues should say so. The failure lies not with those willing to act but with the Bush administration’s refusal.

America pumps more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other nation. China will catch up this year but, on a per capita basis, the US contribution will remain at five or six times that of China and twice that of Europe. The attempt to exempt the US from binding targets speaks to the hubristic exceptionalism that took Mr Bush to war in Iraq.

Most of America’s state governments and much of its business community are ahead of Mr Bush. That said, we should not imagine the next US president will find it easy to impose the required limits on national emissions. At a meeting in Venice of the Council for the United States and Italy at the weekend, I was struck by the caution even of those Americans who are appalled by the White House’s complacency. The US, I heard one remark, is still living with Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” – a societal mood that says it can consume infinite natural resources. The idea that China and India must bear their share of the burden is also embedded deeply in Washington’s political consciousness.

So they must. But there is no prospect that the emerging powers will do so unless the west accepts its responsibility for the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and for much higher per capita emissions. Nothing serious can happen until the US, Europe and Japan offer credible commitments.

The costs of failure are too high to contemplate. As a new report from a group of experts assembled by Oxford university* concludes, they extend well beyond the environment. Global warming threatens economic prosperity and physical security as well as global development.

For all his innate conservatism, Lord Salisbury did allow himself occasional flashes of insight. Those with the power and knowledge to forestall “lamentable events”, he observed, must take responsibility for their inaction. Mr Bush, sadly, still seems to think otherwise.

*Energy, Politics and Poverty, High-level taskforce, Oxford university

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