All around the world, reporters are responding to George W. Bush’s reversal on American climate policy. In a speech in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, the president called for “a long-term global goal” for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Coming on the eve of a Group of Eight industrialized nations in Germany next week, where climate change will be a major topic, the announcement was both momentous and vague-a perfect recipe for journalists trying to read the tea leaves.


Bush has resisted all previous attempts to commit the United States to emissions reductions and other strategies for mitigating global warming. Thursday’s speech was certainly a change of tack, but lacked specifics. Bush called for meetings between major polluters-including China, India, and members of the European Union-beginning in the fall, where each country would establish targets for cutting greenhouse gases over the next ten to twenty years. Each nation would set its own goals, however, with no binding framework. (German chancellor Angela Merkel, who holds the EU presidency and will host the G-8 meeting in Heiligendamm next week, has already made a more specific pitch for reducing emissions-by fifty percent by 2050.)


What does it all mean? For the press at least, Bush’s announcement has worked as something of a warming sign, declaring the need to remain vigilant in changing times. Skepticism has been the dominant theme in the ensuing coverage and journalists seem unwilling to let the president claim the eco-friendly mantle without question.


Few publications have failed to point out that Bush’s speech was designed to assuage international criticism of his poor track record on the environment. The New York Times and the Associated Press led with that observation. The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times bumped it down a bit. But the deflection ploy is a bit of a no-brainer. Many journalists just let environmentalists, who were almost universally opposed to Bush’s announcement, speak for themselves. This was the sole purpose of one article in The Guardian, which comprises quote after quote from displeased and offended eco-activists. “This is a classic spoiler,” Greenpeace’s Robin Oakley said of Bush’s proposal.


Whether or not the president’s machinations will derail other climate change mitigation efforts, was, in fact, the foremost question on many reporters’ minds. Friday’s subheadline in The Toronto Star-“Critics are saying American move is a ploy to get around proposals for emission reductions at upcoming G8 summit”-suggested as much. The Guardian was more pessimistic, carrying this headline: “Bush kills off hopes for G-8 climate plan.” The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, suggested that Bush has “removed a major impediment to joint efforts against global warming.” Bloomberg news referred to the president’s speech as a “counter-offer to European leaders.” But the BBC warned of a possible “stalemate” at the summit; it and a few other news outlets reported on a leaked White House memo that expressed “fundamental opposition” to Chancellor Merkel’s plan, which relies on a global carbon trading scheme to achieve emissions cuts.


The BBC was also one of the few in the media to suggest that “it would be an exaggeration” to call President Bush’s announcement a watershed change in his position on climate change. About-face or not, however, the potential ramifications of the White House’s new plan reach beyond the G-8 meeting. The Kyoto Protocol, the only international treaty calling for mandatory emissions reductions, and never ratified by the U.S., is due to expire in 2012. A round of negotiations to replace the pact will take place in Bali at the end of the year and, according to The New York Times, some European officials are worried that Bush’s new framework will interfere. The paper quotes one anonymous source saying, “The holistic global approach to climate change is very important to us.”

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.