Judging by the press coverage, it would appear that the Bush administration just turned green. A flurry of stories has hit the press after James Connaughton, a senior environmental advisor, suggested the White House would be willing to “enter into an international agreement” on climate change, “if other countries do, too.” That’s according to the New York Times. The BBC focused on three words – “binding international obligations” – uttered by Daniel Price, a national security advisor to President George W. Bush.
Although it remains unclear what, exactly, this means, it is perhaps telling that such statements could grab headlines around the world. The administration seems eager to clarify what it considers misunderstandings about its position on global warming (namely the general perception that it will stop at nothing to quash or at least cripple any international treaty to protect its industry friends). Bush’s critics aren’t going to buy it, of course, but they appear to be more than happy to watch the president try to wiggle out of what has become an increasingly lonesome political corner.
The problem here is that there isn’t much new. In trying to explain the president’s call for “aspirational” climate goals last year, Connaughton used similarly vague language. Under Bush’s plan, countries could institute various voluntary and regulatory measures at the national level. Those commitments would become binding under an international treaty, he said.
So are those the same “binding international obligations” that Connaughton discussed this week? The answer would appear to be no: Most stories suggest that “binding obligations” refers to various proposals to reduce emissions by some percentage by a specific date.
If that were the case, this might be newsworthy. But Connaughton’s suggestion that major developing nations (think China and India) would have to do the same is, if interpreted literally, a tad unrealistic. It also goes against the administration’s entire strategy for global warming, which has up until this point emphasized a decentralized approach based on various national strategies that could be developed by countries according to their specific needs and resources.
Oddly enough, this is one area where the Bush administration’s arguments seemed to (quietly) resonate. Following the principle of “common but differentiated” responsibilities for poor and wealthy nations, many in the climate community had already come to accept the idea that a one-size-fits-all approach simply would not work. If, on the other hand, Connaughton meant to say that major developing nations could sign up for various national policies as opposed to strict emissions targets, the question is then whether the United States would be able to do the same thing. If that were the case, nothing would have changed.
Where does all this leave us? I’m not sure. Connaughton says he is trying to reframe the administration’s position on climate change by emphasizing what it is willing to do, rather than what it is not willing to do. If would be easier to evaluate if the administration would offer some numbers.
Cross posted from Jeff Tollefson on The Great Beyond