Opinion The Emperor's Green Clothes

In presenting his own proposal to deal with greenhouse gas emissions just days before next week's G-8 summit, Bush is trying to look like a leader on climate change in the hope of outmaneuvering Europe and his critics. But his plan is purposely vague and his ideas stale.

By in New York

George W. Bush: The black sheep of Heiligendamm

George W. Bush: The black sheep of Heiligendamm

Many Americans had no idea until today that their government and those of the other Group of Eight (G-8) countries were locked in a bitter battle over global warming. The US media has studiously avoided the issue. The New York Times has ignored it for weeks, the Washington Post covered it with one short article and USA Today contented itself with a wire report from the Associated Press. Meanwhile the television networks have apparently decided to run absolutely nothing on the issue.

But that's suddenly changed overnight. "Bush Alters Climate Dynamics" proclaimed a headline in the Friday edition of the Wall Street Journal, after the paper had previously dismissed the G-8 climate change proposal with only news agency reports. Ditto for the New York Times: "Bush Calls for Global Goal for Cutting Emissions." CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer compliantly went even further, saying: "Bush goes green." Bush the environmental trailblazer?

These reactions already say a lot about the intention behind Bush's climate change "proposal" from Thursday. Bush wants to take the high ground in the news cycle back home before he heads to next week's G-8 summit in Germany and ends up looking like a global warming black sheep again.

White House spokesman Tony Snow even admitted as much. At a press briefing, a reporter asked whether Bush would appear to be a "rejectionist" by torpedoing a G-8 call for limits on greenhouse gases. " No, I think the president looks like a leader," replied Snow.

And making Bush look like a leader was exactly the point of his appearance on Thursday in Washington's Ronald Regan Building, where he spoke on a stage in front of a blue background plastered with the slogan: "US Global Leadership Campaign." As it happens, this was actually the slogan of a private initiative backing greater US engagement abroad, but it made the perfect setting for the president.

The Pretend Offensive

It was a long and boring speech on development aid, poverty and debt relief in the Third World. Bush came to the topic of global warming only towards the end. "The United States takes this issue seriously," he assured his audience before announcing his new proposal. "By the end of next year, America and other nations will set a long-term global goal for reducing greenhouse gases. To help develop this goal, the United States will convene a series of meetings of nations that produce most greenhouse gas emissions, including nations with rapidly growing economies like India and China."

For his domestic audience with little knowledge of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's climate proposals and the bickering between the G-8 states about them, it all sounded as if Bush had suddenly morphed into a bold environmental champion, out to save the world from global warming.

The president acted as if he was the one prepared to take the initiative at the summit at the German Baltic Sea resort of Heiligendamm next week. "The United States is taking the lead, and that's the message I'm going to take to the G-8," he said. The message from Bush was clear: Washington isn't going to let the Europeans set the agenda on global warming.

The White House makes no secret of the political motivations for the new initiative. Jim Connaughton, Bush's point man for environmental issues, was trotted out to play spin doctor to quiet the press corps. Calling it the White House's "going forward strategy," Connaughton said the Bush administration was "trying to create a new conversation" on global warming. Or perhaps Washington is simply trying to turn the current conversation on its head?

It's a clever PR move. Back home in America, Bush can present himself as the decisive leader he so yearns to be, giving the voters the impression that he has launched an offensive in the climate change debate -- a debate that has long since moved on however, even here in the US. And in Europe the plan is intended to take the wind from the sails of G-8 critics -- if they attack his proposal, they will now be the ones that risk being labeled as "rejectionist."


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