Climate, Front And Center

Thus far, press keeps UN, White House gatherings in proper context

Today is the second day of what The New York Times labeled “Climate Week” in an editorial last Saturday. Beginning with a special, one-day session on climate change at the United Nations yesterday, and concluding with a two-day, White House summit that starts Thursday, the editorial predicted that this week “could set a record for the number of high-profile hours spent discussing global warming and what to do about it.”

The goal of both meetings is clear: to reduce emissions of manmade greenhouse gases that cause global warming. However, as Steven Lee Myers wrote for the Times on Sunday, the United Nations and George W. Bush have “fundamentally different” ideas about how to achieve their reductions targets. Thankfully, with the first event now finished, the press has been admirably attentive to this important point.

“The U.N. summit, billed as the largest gathering of global leaders on the issue, kicked off negotiations for a treaty to succeed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol,” wrote Maggie Farley for the Los Angeles Times. World leaders will meet again in Bali, Indonesia in December to begin drafting a replacement for Kyoto, which expires in 2012. But the Bush administration, Farley reminds readers, laid out its opposition to a binding international treaty at a Group of Eight meeting in June.

Bush skipped yesterday’s UN meeting, but joined Secretary General Ban-ki Moon and other select officials for dinner. Of the White House summit, “Mr. Bush’s aides say that the parallel meeting does not compete against the United Nations’ process - hijacking it, as his critics charge,” Myers reported in The New York Times. “They say that Mr. Bush hopes to persuade the nations that produce 90 percent of the world’s emissions to come to a consensus that would allow each, including the United States, to set its own policies rather than having limits imposed by binding international treaty.”

As Bloomberg reported, “That sets the stage for a possible stalemate in December when UN countries meet in Indonesia to begin climate talks.” And in an editorial today, the San Francisco Chronicle suggests that Bush’s “absence at the one-day summit of 80 leaders was yet another signal that the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases would remain an impediment to bold action.”

Yesterday, The Washington Post carried a unique and detailed account Ban-ki Moon’s unrelenting efforts, which started as soon as he became secretary general in January, to secure Bush’s attendance at either the summit or last night’s dinner. Reporter Colum Lynch describes Ban’s persistence as “cajoling,” but notes that he “has demonstrated a rare ability to nudge the White House” on issues like climate change. However, Ban’s actions have also earned criticism that he is too pro-American.

After dinner last night, PTI, the largest wire service in India, quoted Ban as saying of Bush: “He made it quite clear that what he is going to do is to help the United Nations.”

Today is the opening session of the UN General Assembly and, according to Colum, writing for the Post, “Ban’s loyalties will be tested this week as he hosts a gathering of more than 150 presidents, kings and ministers, many of whom worry that Ban is too beholden to a U.S. president whose decisions have often been at odds with U.N. goals and values.” Indeed, both he and Bush are operating in arena where climate is not the only concern.

For instance, Al-Jazeera English reported that Ban’s “call to action was over overshadowed by Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Iran’s president, whose visit to the U.N. and a New York university sparked protests.” When Bush addresses the General Assembly this week, he is expected to focus on problems in Iran and Myanmar, not climate. The White House summit will bring global warming back into focus on Thursday, but thankfully, reporters seem to realize that finding solutions is not entirely a Ban-and-Bush Show.

A Wall Street Journal article today did a good job of placing the UN meeting and the White House summit in the broader in a global and domestic context. While the Bush administration “will offer a variety of diplomatic carrots” to encourage China, India, Brazil and other developing nations to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, writes John J. Fialka, “Congress is working on what amounts to a stick: an economic penalty that could be imposed on goods imported from developing nations if those nations don’t move to curb carbon dioxide and other related emissions by 2020.” Lawmakers are studying a variety of emissions bills that would mandate reductions, while also trying to reconcile Senate and House drafts of a new energy bill.

And in addition to Congress, Bush must contend with U.S. allies with shifting priorities. In its coverage of yesterday’s event, the Financial Times, like most U.K. newspapers, noted that British environment minister Hilary Benn singled out the U.S. for its lack of cooperation. “His words marked a change in tone for the U.K. in its approach towards the U.S. on environmental issues,” Fiona Harvey reported. “Tony Blair preferred to use his relationship with George W. Bush to press him privately to soften his stance on climate change.”

If London appeared to break with Washington, however, Ottawa moved closer. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters that his country would join the Asia Pacific Partnership, an emissions reduction pact created in 2005 that includes the U.S., China, India, Japan, Australia, and Korea. “Canada will join a small coalition of countries that have spurned calls for mandatory pollution-reduction targets to fight climate change despite producing more than half the world’s emissions,” reported The Toronto Star. Environmentalists have labeled the pact “anti-Kyoto.”

The good news is that a commitment to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions appears robust and nearly universal. But at this point, it is unclear which approach-mandatory or voluntary targets-will prevail. Ban and his camp, which support the former, had the platform yesterday. On Thursday, Bush and his camp, which support the latter, will get their chance. One can only hope that the press will have some energy left to dissect the end of Climate Week as thoroughly as it has the beginning.

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