Following the G8 summit last week in Gleneagles, Scotland, some have tried to spin a clear failure on the issue of climate change into a partial triumph because President George W. Bush was at least forced to acknowledge that the phenomenon is actually happening. The sad truth, unfortunately, is that not even this slim level of optimism is justified. Bush has already acknowledged as much about global warming in the past as he did at the G8--but such admissions have hardly moved him any closer to endorsing the kind of mandatory steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions that have been embraced by other nations. In fact, at this point, there's little reason to expect such action on global warming before 2008, when a new president is elected in the United States.
If you don't believe me, just take a look at the 32-page "Gleneagles Communiqué," then compare it to Bush's major policy address on global warming: a Rose Garden speech from June 11, 2001. In many ways, the two documents turn out to be mirror images of one another, suggesting that Bush has barely moved an inch over the course of his presidency. For instance, the Gleneagles Communiqué says the following about the science of climate at its very opening:
Climate change is a serious and long term challenge that has the potential to affect every part of the globe. We know that increased need and use of energy from fossil fuels, and other human activities, contribute in large part to increases in greenhouse gases associated with the warming of our Earth's surface. While uncertainties remain in our understanding of climate science, we know enough to act now to put ourselves on a path to slow and, as the science justifies, stop and then reverse the growth of greenhouse gases.
But if you break this statement down into its three core statements -- of concern, of the relevant science, and of a commitment to action -- you will find little that wasn't already stated by Bush fully four years ago in a speech that carefully shrank from fully acknowledging the state of scientific knowledge at the time and the urgency of the problem (just as the Gleneagles document unfortunately does).
First, in his 2001 speech, Bush called global warming "an issue that must be addressed by the world." Second, Bush observed that "concentration of greenhouse gases, especially CO2, have increased substantially since the beginning of the industrial revolution" and that "the increase is due in large part to human activity." (Notably, Bush didn't explicitly acknowledge that the warming caused by these gases is also a direct result of human activity -- that humans are driving warming now.) Third, our president commented, "While scientific uncertainties remain, we can begin now to address the factors that contribute to climate change."
These are, in essence, the same statements contained in the opening passage of the Gleneagles Communiqué. Such admissions didn't push Bush into supporting a mandatory emissions caps approach akin to the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, and they're not having any stronger an effect in 2005 -- despite the fact that the science has only become more concrete in demonstrating that we have a serious global problem on our hands. Rather, the main policy developments to result from the G8 include an emphasis on new technologies to curb greenhouse gas emissions and a meeting in November to keep talking about the issue (what British prime minister Tony Blair has termed the launching of a "new dialogue"). But beyond this window dressing, there are no specific targets or timetables in the Gleneagles Communiqué for reducing emissions and only a single mention of the Kyoto Protocol.
In fact, it gets even worse. Because they have allowed the Gleneagles Communiqué to reflect the Bush administration's talking points on global warming, the other world leaders who are parties to the G8 have necessarily shied away from fully stating the scientific reality. In effect, America's addiction to spinning information has now left its stain on other leading nations of the world.
There's one aspect of the G8 communiqué that is more scientifically explicit than Bush's June 2001 speech: the mild statement that greenhouse gases are "associated with the warming of our Earth's surface." Yet even this comes nowhere near acknowledging the content of a recent statement from 11 National Academies of Science. These leading scientific bodies didn't just say greenhouse gases are associated with warming; they declared, "It is likely that most of the warming in recent decades can be attributed to human activities." There's a big difference there, and one that the Bush administration has been carefully eliding lately. Now, other leading nations are also on record ignoring what the academies have had to say.
And if all of that doesn't leave you feeling pessimistic enough, it's worth also following the lead of Myles Allen and comparing the weak 2005 Gleneagles Communiqué not just with Bush's 2001 Rose Garden speech, but also with the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change, an international agreement that already had stated more than a decade ago that global warming is a problem and must be acted upon. Policy-wise, the United States really hasn't moved all that far since 1992, when our current president's father endorsed the Framework Convention. Numerous other nations have since built upon the Framework Convention by implementing the Kyoto Protocol to reduce emissions, but we have not done so.
Finally, then, from an American perspective, there's really only one major consequence of the G8 for the climate-change issue, and it's something rather intangible: Over the past month or more, the American press and public have seemingly awakened to the significance of this subject, which has been repeatedly in the news. The coverage has put the Bush administration on the defensive about an issue that it would obviously prefer to simply ignore and not discuss. There can be little doubt that the G8, and the events and journalistic revelations surrounding it, have helped put global warming on the agenda in the United States. Now the real fight begins.
Chris Mooney is the Washington correspondent for Seed Magazine and a columnist for The American Prospect Online. His first book, The Republican War on Science, will be published in September. His daily blog and other writings can be found at www.chriscmooney.com.