Beating Around the Bush

The president turns 180˚ on climate

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.”

Such a holistic approach also counts on the assumption that any lasting agreement based on the Bali talks will be signed, sometime later, with a new and more environmentally conscious American president. The Chicago Tribune quotes Phil Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust saying, “What Europe and Canada and the rest of the G-8 are trying to do is set up negotiations that will conclude” with Bush’s successor. The Trib article is one of the few attempts by reporters to place Thursday’s speech, which took place the U.S. Agency of International Development, in the larger context of American foreign policy. Author Mark Silva cites missile defense, tensions with Russia, and AIDS as other areas where the U.S. stands at odds with Europeans and other allies. The New York Times also picked up this story thread on Friday when it published a two-part editorial under the headline “Playing to the Crowd.” The first part concerned the administration’s plan to mitigate climate change, and second part concerned its plan for combating AIDS, both of which will come up at the G-8 summit.

After Bush’s speech, such apprehensive articles spread quickly through the press. But at least two of the resulting news columns were notable for their sarcasm and wit. The most entertaining item comes from Dana Milbank at The Washington Post. She is the only reporter to point out the irony in comments, also delivered Thursday, by NASA administrator Michael Griffin. Shortly before Bush, his boss, made his momentous announcement, Griffin appeared on National Public Radio still holding to the old party line: that climate change might not be a threat at all. After highlighting these contradictory statements, Milbank goes on to cover the ensuing confusion at a White Press conference where Jim Connaughton, the president’s environmental advisor, called Bush’s plan a “long-term, aspirational goal.”

“Aspirational goal?” Milbank writes. “Like having the body you want without diet or exercise? Or getting rich without working?” She then enumerates a series of questions from various journalists that attempted to gain such clarification. Unfortunately, despite their efforts, Connaughton would say little. This is no surprise. Bush’s announcement that he does, ostensibly, care about the effects of global warming was so vague that it prompted The Independent to run a line-by-line translation:

Bush: “Each country would establish midterm management targets and programmes that reflect their own mix of energy sources and needs.”

Translation: Nobody will be obliged to take any painful decisions.

Bush’s plan does ring hollow, but equally troubling is the fact that he thinks it possible, in the last days of his administration, to efface his abominable environmental record. We can be thankful, at least, that the press seems poised not to allow it.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.