For the first time in 16 years, a major environmental conference opens in Washington, hosted by the Bush administration. But no concrete results are expected, and that – say European participants – is the point of this high-level meeting.
Far from representing a Damascene conversion on climate change by President George Bush, the two-day gathering of the world's biggest polluting nations is aimed at undermining the UN's efforts to tackle global warming, say European sources. "The conference was called at very short notice," said one participant. "It's a cynical exercise in destabilising the UN process."
The gathering brings together foreign ministers – though not Britain's – as well as junior ministers and economic planners. It will be chaired by the President's chief environment adviser James Connaughton, who has a reputation equal only to that of the former adviser Karl Rove in the environmental movement. And when Mr Bush addresses the conference tomorrow, it will be to persuade the ever-growing number of Americans dismayed by the Bush policy of climate-change denial.
His motive, participants say, is to blunt attempts by Democratic presidential candidates to attack the White House for blocking climate-change initiatives.
He also wants to head off the gathering momentum in Congress to impose the first ever mandatory limitations on emissions for US companies. With 154 coal-fired power stations set to be built in the US over the next 25 years, there is an increasing sense of urgency among US environmental policy makers.
The omens are not inspiring. On his very first day in office, 20 January 2001, President Bush took up a defiantly ostrich–like stance on the issue of climate change. He ripped up dozens of environmental regulations including rules for less arsenic in drinking water, a ban on snowmobiles in national parks, controls for raw sewage overflow, energy-efficiency standards, and protections against commercial logging, mining, and drilling on national lands including the Arctic Circle.
A month later, he was urged by the Treasury Secretary Paul O' Neill "to become the first President to confirm publicly the linkage between such [greenhouse] gases and global climate change" and to limit emissions.
Instead, Bush reversed a campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, saying in a private letter that doing so would be too costly. He flounced out of the Kyoto protocol on global warming, triggering international contempt that would only be eclipsed by the disaster of his war in Iraq.
Now a little over a year before leaving office, Mr Bush has called a short-notice meeting of the 17 largest emitters of greenhouse gases. The aim is to bring developing nations such as China, Indonesia, India and Brazil together with industrialised countries.
White House officials say the goal is to come up with a plan for deciding how, and how much, to cut emissions. "Those are not issues you discuss and resolve in two days," said Dan Price, a deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs. The fear among European delegates is that the US will try to string out the talks to "run down the clock" on the Kyoto process and prevent agreement being reached that way.
It is "a sidelight, not a process that leads to anything," said Philip Clapp of the National Environmental Trust. "You're seeing the Bush administration make this up as they go along."
Mr Bush still refuses to accept mandatory limits on carbon emissions or efforts to change America's reliance on fossil fuels.
Son of Kyoto: progress so far
The Kyoto protocol is the closest the world has come to a global agreement to combat climate change – and it is running out. Signed in 1997, it was designed to stabilise emissions of greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Ratified by 167 countries, it has been ignored by major polluters such as the US and China and expires in 2012.
The UN's own scientists in the form of the IPCC are clear that Kyoto did not go nearly far enough and fraught negotiations on a new framework – dubbed the "Son of Kyoto" – have been under way for some time. It is now widely accepted that carbon trading will form the basis of any new agreement. A summit in Bali in December will search for a formula that satisfies developing countries demanding investment in return for abandoning the obvious, carbon intensive route to growing their economies, and rich industrial nations determined not to agree a deal that could damage their economies.Reuse content