Bush's Climate Legacy

Yesterday, representatives from the world’s 16 most-polluting nations, collectively responsible for 90 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, gathered for two days of US-sponsored climate discussions. There’s a lot riding on these talks: George Bush has already used them to curtail climate change discussions at the G8 summit and, earlier this week, to justify absenting himself from talks at the UN. He’s now hoping to use them to shape the agenda ahead of this December’s Bali conference, where world leaders will begin to draft a sequel to the Kyoto protocol.

Given the buildup, it’s a pity that there’s so little chance of substantive progress. The summit’s vague agenda calls for delegates to agree on broad long- and mid-term goals and strategies, but is unlikely to produce binding commitments. In his speech today, Bush looks set to continue touting technological quick-fixes while refusing to back real reforms.

Many greens - including key European diplomats - believe today’s talks are simply another installment in Bush’s climate change bait-and-switch, in which he abandoned the rhetorical trappings of climate-change denial but continued to block serious solutions. The attendance roster at the US talks reflects that skepticism: The meeting was originally conceived as a gathering of world leaders, but most countries refused to send anyone more senior than their environmental ministers.

There’s certainly good reason to doubt Bush’s commitment to the climate-change fight; his much-vaunted volte-face on global warming has produced little but hot air. Indeed, as the Washington Post reported yesterday, much of America’s progress on cutting emissions has come about despite, not because of, the current administration’s policies.

But there’s another, more dangerous possibility: Today’s talks may be less an attempt to shrug off responsibility for climate change, and more a genuine bid to cement Bush’s environmental legacy.

If Bush were to simply ignore climate change until the clock ran down on his presidency, he would leave the way open for his successor to push through meaningful policy fixes. If, on the other hand, he succeeds in brokering an international deal based on weak, voluntary targets, he might be able to lock his successors into a lily-livered program of ineffectual reform that would be enormously difficult to put right.

The real risk, then, is that Bush’s reluctant about-face on global warming will lead to change - just not enough of it. In the weeks and months to come, Bush’s lukewarm approach to global warming could ultimately prove more dangerous than his former climate-change denial.

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