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Why the G8 Summit Was a Failure: The U.S.'s Undercutting of International Environmental Plans


Tuesday, Jun. 26, 2007

Nero became infamous for fiddling as First Century Rome burned. This month, the parties at the G8 summit followed Nero's insanely frivolous, time-wasting lead. Unfortunately, this time the whole planet is burning.

The Global Warming "Controversy" Is Actually Established Fact

Recently, the world's leading climate scientists released the 2007 International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 4th Assessment report. (Click here for the reports of workgroup 1 and workgroup 3 (pre-publication version), and a summary of the workgroup 2 report.

But long before then, a summary of the research studies published in Nature, Science, and a host of other prestigious scientific journals established two facts beyond any reasonable doubt. First, Earth's climate is warming dramatically due to greenhouse gas emissions. Second, the warming the earth has experienced to date is already producing serious, destructive environmental impacts, ranging from the frequent and more intense wildfires in the forests of the western United States; to the rapid melting of Arctic ice, threatening polar bears with extinction; to the flooding of low-lying Pacific island nations.

Research published in the past few years also suggests that both global warming and impacts from rising temperatures may not occur in a gentle, steady linear manner - a fact that complicates planning to reduce emissions and adapt to already inevitable impacts. For example, global warming substantially impairs the earth's ability to store the excess carbon we emit. Trees and other vegetation are not as effective in storing carbon as we expected; warmer temperatures do not produce as much plant growth as we thought. As temperatures rise, soil cannot store as much carbon. Nor can the ocean, the temperature of which is rising too. For these reasons, scientists anticipate that warming will accelerate well beyond the level we would otherwise predict from the level of accumulating greenhouse gasses.

Similarly, impacts from accelerated warming do not occur in a nice, predictable manner. The Greenland and Antarctic ice fields are not simply melting at a steady rate as temperatures increase; instead, scientists have found that the melted water forms rivers underneath the fields -- greasing the skids, so to speak, and dramatically increasing movement of these massive ice fields into the ocean. This will, in turn, accelerate the sea level changes associated with the melting of those ice fields, in a somewhat unpredictable, non-linear way.

So, what did the leaders of the world's eight major industrial nations do earlier this month in Heiligendamm, Germany at the G8 summit to address these immensely serious and urgent issues? The answer: Essentially nothing. Rather than initiating real change, President Bush wrote, and the rest of the world's leaders played out, a carefully scripted political drama.

The Prologue to the Summit's Political Drama

The decade-and-a-half-long prologue for this drama began in 1992, at the Rio Earth Summit, when, under the leadership of then President George H.W. Bush, the US signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. In that treaty, the nations of the world promised to develop international mechanisms to reduce greenhouse gas emission.

In 1997, after lengthy negotiations to address US concerns, the US signed the Kyoto Protocol, which contained binding commitments by the world's industrialized nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through 2012.

However, in 2001, almost immediately upon taking office, President George W. Bush abrogated his campaign promises and withdrew US support for the Kyoto protocol.

Since then, too, President Bush has consistently refused to play a constructive role on the climate change issue. Even worse, he has quite intentionally and aggressively resisted others' efforts to create an effective international response to climate change.

The current Bush Administration has gagged government climate change scientists, misrepresented their views by deliberately changing the interpretation of scientific evidence on climate change, and issued estimates vastly overstating the cost of implementing climate change regulation and understating the economic costs of climate change.

Meanwhile, in defiance of the Clean Air Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency refused to issue federal regulations to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles - claiming that this issue was simply outside its broad authority until the Supreme Court begged to differ. The U.S. government also sought to obstruct and quash state efforts to regulate CO2.

As other nations struggled to implement Kyoto and develop a stronger, more comprehensive, binding climate change agreement as the Kyoto agreement expires in 2012, President George W. Bush also choose to play the spoiler regarding international efforts. For example, Bush blocked any climate change commitments at the 2005 Gleneagle G8 summit.

In addition, when UNFCCC signatories and Kyoto parties met in Montreal in 2005, President Bush II recruited Australia, China, India, Japan and South Korea to join a no-promises, no-strings-attached technology transfer pact called the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate (the Asia-Pacific pact). Canada initially toyed with joining the Asia-Pacific Pact, but decided not to. The Pact's title misleadingly suggests it will promote climate change; the truth, however, is quite to the contrary - it is a device to avoid enforceable commitments to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. (Indeed, the Asia-Pacific membership may be more questionable than Bush's cobbled-together "coalition of the willing" that invaded Iraq in defiance of international law.)

As readers are well-aware, the 2006 mid-term elections installed an ambitious Democratic Congress ready to battle President Bush on all fronts, particularly in light of Bush's rock-bottom approval ratings. This heightened Congressional pressure was combined with increasingly strong statements made by the scientific community, and a slew of movies and documentaries fostering a shift in American public opinion about global warming.

Thus, this Spring, in light of these developments, the world community began to believe that surely the U.S. was finally ready to join international efforts to slow global warming. But it turned out not to be the case.

The Opening Scene: Europe's Hopes are Severely Undermined by US Intransigence

German Chancellor Angela Merkel assumed leadership of the G8 summit this year. Like her direct predecessor Tony Blair, Merkel put climate change at the top of the agenda. In March, the G8 environmental ministers held preparatory meetings - raising hopes in Germany and the rest of the EU that the summit would produce binding commitments to reduce GHG emissions to 50% of 1990 levels by 2050. But when Germany circulated a draft declaration on climate change, U.S. negotiators immediately slashed all substance.

More specifically, U.S. negotiators cut out a pledge that would have limited global temperature rise to 2 degrees C; cut the commitment to reduce GHG emissions 50% below 1990 levels by 2050; struck out an statement recognizing that the UNFCCC meetings are the proper forum for negotiating future climate change agreements; and eliminated statements about the IPCC 4 report, the need for urgent action, and the damage that climate change will cause.

Then, on May 31, President Bush outright rejected the UNFCCC process as the forum for serious climate change negotiations, insisting instead on an American-led process building upon the Asia-Pacific pact. Bush proposed that the G8 + 5 major developing countries (India, China, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico) spend 18 months developing a consensus on aspirational goals for GHG emissions reductions, and then have individual countries design national strategies to meet those goals, asking major industrial sectors to design "best practices."

Shocked world leaders consider the implications of Bush's proposal. Was he again trying to derail forthcoming UNFCCC discussions in Bali? Was he serious about delaying any goal-setting for yet another 18 months? Did he really believe that voluntary compliance with national strategies could conceivably put out the fire?

The Appalling Climax: The G8 Fails to Set a Firm Limit on Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Bush probably hoped the G8 summit would open with a strong focus on his proposal. If so, he was mistaken. Instead, in rapid succession before the summit opened, other countries took center stage.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper embraced the IPCC's recommendation of 50% by 2050, commenting that "all countries must embrace absolute ambitious reduction targets, so that the (Intergovernmental) Panel on Climate Change's goal of cutting emissions in half by 2050 can be met." Japan joined with Germany to urge other countries to commit to 50% by 2050, torpedoing Bush's no-promises approach. The EU position was to embrace a target of 60 - 70% reduction of 2006 emissions by 2050 (roughly equivalent to the 50% reduction by 2050 suggested by the IPCC) in February 2007. Europe also made a unilateral commitment to reduce 1990 emissions by 20% by 2020.

These pronouncements set the stage for tension-building private meetings between Bush and German Chancellor Merkel -- as well as between Bush and America's war ally, Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair on the eve of the summit.

Ultimately, Merkel emerged with the news that the G8 nations have agreed to "seriously consider" a goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050. However, Bush inserted diplomatic weasel-words that will inevitably vitiate this wise goal.

Will the world simply applaud this supposed "success," drive home in its $3.65 a gallon gas-guzzling cars, and sit in its homes content in the knowledge that something purportedly has been done? Let's hope not, for the sake of our collective future.

The Upshot: Delay and Uncertainty, When Swift, Sure Action Is Crucial

The upshot of the G8 Summit speaks not of success, but of failure: Bush has delayed international goal-setting on climate change by at least a year or two. And he has escaped without any responsibility for the GHG emissions by the United States between 1997 and 2050, which have raised, and will continue to raise, the planet's temperature.

While President Bush has conceded the importance of the UNFCCC process, he plans to continue discussions on a parallel track. Bush has provided political cover for the conservative allies, Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who he had led astray on the climate change issue. Most importantly, Bush himself has made no commitments whatsoever to combat an urgent problem whose seriousness it is far too late in the day to dispute.

Unfortunately, President Bush is not alone. The G8 diplomats who accepted this American crumb for their own political protection must also accept the blame. They may hope that they have at least provoked momentum for climate change - a train that is moving inexorably forward - but the reality is that Bush will derail this train any time he wishes to. Rather than genuinely embracing the need for drastic action on climate change, he is merely temporizing, distracting the attention of the American people from this crucial issue.

In the end, Bush has deluded G8 leaders into thinking that the G8 outcome represents real progress. In reality, it does not. And so, despite their best intentions, they too are fiddling, as the Earth burns.

Susan L. Smith is the author of the Environmental Law Prof Blog. She teaches environmental and natural resources law at Willamette University College of Law. She directs Willamette's Law and Government Program, serves as a Senior Fellow of the Willamette University Center on Sustainable Communities, and teaches in the Law School's Sustainable Environmental, Energy, and Resources Law program. Prior to joining the Willamette faculty, Professor Smith spent 10 years litigating cases with the Environment and Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and with a major law firm.

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