A Change in Climate

Bush warms to green issues

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With new shipping lanes opening up in the Arctic as polar ice melts, perhaps official Washington sensed it was time to get serious about global warming. So President Bush hosted an international summit on climate change. Powerful Michigan Democrat John Dingell, long seen as an obstacle to action, last week endorsed limits on fossil-fuel burning. And a market-based greenhouse gas emissions plan with strong bipartisan support took shape in the Senate.

It was beginning to feel like a "deciding moment" on climate change, as Bush said in his speech to representatives of 15 other major polluting nations who gathered for the two-day White House conference. However, don't be surprised if this "moment" extends well into the next presidency.

Bush's climate moves, although marking his most concerted effort to play an international leadership role on the subject, were met with skepticism. Britain's special envoy on climate issues, John Ashton, said the United States remained "isolated" because Bush continues to reject mandatory limits on emissions, instead touting the success of voluntary steps to cut greenhouse gases and the potential of new technologies. "The word voluntary means what you can do without heavy lifting, what you can do without mobilization of real political imagination," Ashton said. "It's not going to crack this problem." Britain and other developed countries want to see a U.S. pledge to participate in negotiations soon beginning on the next phase of the Kyoto Protocol, but Bush has been steadfastly opposed, without commitments from fast-developing China and India.

Legislation. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are working on mandatory, economywide measures despite Bush's likely rejection of them. A significant sign came when House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Dingell, an advocate for his home-state auto industry, released a 22-page white paper outlining a "cap and trade" system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Dingell also has proposed carbon-tax legislation that is seen as less politically palatable, but observers view the white paper as a sign he will work on legislation that has a chance of gaining broad support.

Meanwhile, some previous foes of climate change legislation in the Senate are expected to join in a bipartisan plan to be unveiled as early as this week by Virginia Republican John Warner and Connecticut independent Joseph Lieberman. They believe they can gain support for a 70 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 by creating a Federal Reserve-style board to help contain the costs imposed on polluting industries.

Long before any lawmakers decide how to stave off climate catastrophe, however, they'll be voting about what to do about the already evident effects in the Arctic. The Bush administration is pushing for the Senate to ratify the international Law of the Sea Treaty. The treaty has more than 150 signatories and took effect in 1994, but some senators have blocked U.S. participation over worries about national sovereignty. But now receding polar ice is likely to open the long-sought northwest nautical passage between Asia and Europe—and a mineral-rich seabed. So, a variety of industries want to see the United States, with its large Alaskan coastline, assert its claims under the treaty. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told a Senate hearing that the nation should stop "sitting on the sidelines." In one way or another, on climate change, the United States appears to be suiting up to get into the game.