Changing the Climate
The Bush administration seizes the initiative on climate-change policy.


Jonathan H. Adler

In January the Bush administration promised bold, eye-popping initiatives on energy and the environment in the State of the Union address. But the White House failed to deliver. Bush proposed reducing U.S. gasoline consumption by 20 percent over ten years, largely by increasing subsidies and mandates for alternative fuels and tightening auto fuel-economy standards. Such proposals are hardly path breaking, and certainly failed to justify the pre-speech predictions. More ethanol is not an inspiring energy future.

In May, by comparison, there was little effort to hype the president’s announcement of a new climate-policy agenda in preparation for the G-8 summit in Heiligendamm. Everyone knew climate change topped host Angela Merkel’s agenda, and that President Bush and the German prime minister were leagues apart on the issues. The big question was not whether Bush would propose something new, but whether he would acquiesce to European demands. So it was a surprise when, at the tail end of a speech outlining his G-8 agenda, President Bush seized the global initiative on climate-change policy.

On May 31, the president announced support for a new international framework on climate change under which the 15 largest emitters of greenhouse gases would adopt their own parallel commitments on climate change on the way to a long-term emission-reduction goal. The president also stressed the need to accelerate the transfer of advanced technologies to other nations by eliminating tariffs and other trade barriers on clean-energy advances and making clean energy a new priority for international financial institutions.

Whereas as the Kyoto Protocol and European proposals sought to establish firm near-term emission-reduction targets that few nations would actually meet, the Bush stressed the development and deployment of efficiency-enhancing and emission-reducing technologies in an effort to reduce carbon intensity. In this regard the president’s plan built upon the preexisting, but little noticed, Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, an agreement among the United States, Australia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea to develop and deploy clean energy technologies among member nations.

Environmentalists and some European environmental ministers were quick to dismiss Bush’s plan. Yet others, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon praised the president’s initiative. Japan and Australia were downright enthusiastic, and China responded more favorably than it has to Europe’s emission-reduction demands. Within a week, Bush had transformed the climate-policy dialogue. The president’s proposal became the basis for the G-8’s climate resolution and, for the first time, created an opportunity for developing nation participation in a meaningful climate-policy framework. Not bad for a president often accused (sometimes rightly) of obstructionism on environmental issues.

The potential to bring China and India to the negotiation table is particularly important. No climate regime that omits fast-growing developing nations, could ever promise to have a meaningful effect on projected climate changes. The G-8 nations may represent the world’s economic and political powerhouses, but account for only 43 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions. The U.S. remains the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but not for long. With Chinese industrialists opening coal-fired power plants at a break-neck pace, China may overtake the United States as early as this year. Other large developing nations, including India and Brazil, are also increasingly important contributors to global emissions.

While developing nation participation has long been a key to any meaningful effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, China and India have made it absolutely clear that they will not accept binding emission-reduction targets or other climate measures that could crimp their plans for continued economic growth. This geopolitical reality created a necessity for alternative climate strategies, and gave the Bush administration an opportunity to reframe the debate.

The Bush approach also has the potential to break the policy gridlock at home. During the Clinton administration a unanimous Senate adopted the Byrd-Hagel resolution, preemptively rejecting any international agreement, such as the Kyoto Protocol, that did not demand anything of China, India, or other less-developed nations. Thus, developing nation participation has also been a political necessity domestically.

Unlike emission caps, the Bush administration’s supply-side approach to reducing carbon intensity and accelerating technological innovation both satisfies domestic constituencies and sidesteps foreign opposition. Because it does not threaten developing nation dreams of economic prosperity, it does not face automatic rejection from developing nations. It also could enlist other countries to adopt commitments they are actually wiling to keep. While it is too early to claim the plan a success, it has far greater potential than the emission-cap approach favored by most European governments.