Op-Ed: Foes of Global Warming Could Thank George Bush

Opinion Editorial
Foes of Global Warming Could Thank George Bush

San Francisco Chronicle

Suddenly, things are looking up in the fight against global warming.

While the United States may want nothing to do with the Kyoto Protocol, the rest of the world just struck a difficult deal proving that the treaty is still very much alive.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, prospects are better than ever for starting to rein in America’s greenhouse gas emissions – with Kyoto or without. The latest and most sweeping proposal came Friday from an interesting duo, Democrat Joe Lieberman and Republican John McCain.

It’s a surprising but welcome turn of events, and oddly enough, we may have George W. Bush to thank.

A few months back, when the president abandoned his campaign pledge to cut power plant emissions – and then ditched Kyoto, too – it appeared we were quickly losing what little ground we’d gained. But if the goal was killing Kyoto and any other effort to curb U.S. emissions, the effect so far has been quite the opposite.

On the diplomatic front, U.S. rejection of a treaty 10 years in the making has only stiffened the resolve of other nations to push ahead. Rather than acquiesce in Washington’s unilateral declaration that “Kyoto is dead,” 178 countries meeting in Bonn last month made the hard compromises that eluded them eight months earlier in The Hague, setting the stage to bring the treaty into force as early as next year.

Ironically, the Bonn deal is one that, in most major respects, almost certainly would have satisfied U.S. negotiators last year in The Hague. In other words, with the United States now counting itself out, other nations were willing to make the concessions that conceivably might have kept it on board.

In the long run, no international strategy to stem global warming can succeed without the United States, the world’s largest climate polluter. Having declared so early, so often, and so emphatically that Kyoto is beyond repair, the Bush White House is not about to reconsider. Nor is it likely to offer up an alternative that will be seen as credible by other nations.

But that may be just fine. There’s time enough to get the U.S. to join Kyoto or a successor agreement. What’s more critical right now is launching serious efforts at home to achieve real reductions in U.S. emissions. And here, too, the president is inadvertently lending a helping hand.

In Congress, Bush’s stark stance has given Democrats one more thing to rally against, and given moderate Republicans fresh cause to prove their environmental credentials. The result: a sudden bipartisan clamor to demonstrate to voters that not everyone in Washington is oblivious to the threat of global warming.

Since Bonn:

  • The House approved a modest increase in fuel-economy standards for SUVs and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-San Francisco, launched a drive for a much bigger increase.
  • The Senate began to weigh a bipartisan bill that commits significant new money to climate research and directs the administration to map a comprehensive global warming strategy.
  • The Senate Foreign Relations committee unanimously approved a resolution calling on the administration to get back to negotiating a binding climate treaty.

A nd Sen. James Jeffords, the ex-Republican from Vermont, in his first order of business as new chair of the Senate Environment Committee, opened hearings on legislation to curb carbon dioxide from power plants – the idea Bush embraced as candidate and abandoned as president.

Now, Lieberman and McCain have teamed up to call for a “cap-and-trade” system that would tap market forces to cut emissions by setting an economy- wide cap and letting companies buy and sell emissions credits.

They said they would meet with industry leaders in coming weeks to begin crafting a bill.

None of this suggests that we are on the verge of meeting the greatest environmental challenge of our time. Confronting climate change demands sustained effort over decades to gradually wean industrialized nations from fossil fuels, and to keep the booming developing world from becoming ever more dependent. It calls for, in essence, the largest experiment in directed change ever undertaken.

Kyoto, even once up and running, would be only a modest start. It promises just a fraction of the reduction in greenhouse gases that ultimately is needed to avert climatic disaster, and offers no real strategy to bring developing countries on board.

But it gets the rest of the world on the right path. And if the United States can start putting its own house in order, it should be possible to merge the parallel efforts in due time.

That may not be the scenario Bush had in mind. But if we can pull it off, he’ll deserve much of the credit just the same.

Former Chronicle reporter Elliot Diringer, an environmental adviser and deputy press secretary in the Clinton White House, is now director of international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.