The conventional wisdom about the president's climate speech yesterday, April 16, is that it was calculated to head off international efforts to tighten binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions and U.S. legislation to cap and reduce emissions. I see no reason to dispute the usual view. What's a little puzzling is why Bush thinks, given his rock-bottom standing in national opinion polls and his short remaining time in office, he still has any real political capital to expend on the climate issue.
Oddly, the president's mastery of mathematical calculus seems better than his command of political calculus. The following captures the essense of what he had to say: "To reach our 2025 goal we'll need to more rapidly slow the growth of power sector greenhouse gas emissions so they peak within 10 to 15 years." That is, rather than belatedly accept the Kyoto goal of reducing U.S. emissions to 7 percent below their 1990 level, or alternatively agree in upcoming climate talks to some less ambitious schedule of greenhouse gas reductions, the United States will only try to reduce the rate at which emissions are increasing. What the president is proposing is that we merely tinker with the first derivative.
Why does he think that's going to impress anybody? The underlying logic of the Kyoto Protocol is that those countries responsible now for the most emissions and that have the greatest per-capita emissions should start cutting them immediately, and that the countries with fast-growing emissions--China and India, first and foremost--should start cutting theirs in the next phase. The diplomatic rationale is exactly analogous to that underlying the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which requires non-nuclear-weapons countries to not acquire atomic bombs now, in exchange from a longer-term commitment from the nuclear weapons states to start getting rid of theirs in the future.
The non-nuclear weapons states have shown a growing impatience with the lackluster pace at which those countries with atomic bombs have been disarming. But it would be a tragedy is they lost patience altogether and all started acquiring nuclear weapons. By the way token, it will be most unfortunate if the American people gives into demagogic reasoning and persists in refusing to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions: the inevitable effect will be China's refusing to ever do anything constructive, and the Europeans giving up on ambitious efforts they're already making.
In his speech, Bush said he sought to reconcile climate policy with continued economic growth, roundly rejecting the Kyoto approach. He took some credit --justly--for working to tighten automotive fuel efficiency standards (over the opposition of some Democratic Party leaders) and for mandating higher efficiency standards for lighting and appliances. Those wishing to dissect the speech in every detail can go to the blog maintained by Andrew Revkin, the lead climate reporter at The New York Times. Revkin's posting includes both his own comments and those from readers.