The reaction revealed a trait Europeans have long considered a quintessentially American attribute: political naiveté. It seems pretty obvious now that a Texas oilman with a proven aversion to antipollution regulation and a firm grounding in the don't-tread-on-me ideology of Western Republicans would reject a complicated agreement like the one forged in Kyoto, Japan in 1997. A few weeks ago, Bush clearly indicated his opposition to the central tenet of that agreement curbing global warming by cutting emissions of carbon dioxide in a letter to several Republican Senators. In it, he abandoned a campaign pledge to regulate CO2 emissions from American power plants, citing among other factors the "incomplete state of scientific knowledge of the causes of, and solutions to, global climate change."
Last week he was blunter, and so were his foes. "We will not do anything that harms our economy, because first things first, are the people who live in America," Bush said. "That's my priority." Swedish Environment Minister Kjell Larsson said the Administration's move "sabotages many years of hard work;" his French counterpart, Dominique Voynet, called the U.S. position "suicidal and irresponsible;" and Margot Wallström, the European Union's Commissioner for the environment, seemed to hint at the possibility of calling for sanctions against the E.U.'s biggest trading partner. "This isn't some marginal environmental issue that can be ignored or played down," she said. "It has to do with trade and economics."
This week another European delegation heads for Washington to get a readout on what Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists called "the most anti-environmental act by an American President in modern history." By the time they arrive, the Bush Administration will at least have had plenty of practice if scant success in explaining its position. Last week German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who governs in a coalition with the environmentalist Greens, was there to air his differences on global warming and other issues in his first meeting with Bush. And Dutch Environment Minister Jan Pronk, who as chairman of the Kyoto process presided over the unsuccessful Hague conference last year, arrived last week to probe the still largely empty offices of the President's Executive Branch for some augury of what the Bush Administration wants.
His confusion and ultimate frustration is shared by many close to the climate change discussions. Despite Bush's clear historical and financial ties to the oil industry, many activists saw grounds for thinking a full break could be avoided. Before the inauguration, soon-to-be Secretary of State Colin Powell had asked Pronk to help push for a delay in the next scheduled high-level meeting on the Kyoto guidelines; Christine Todd Whitman, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, made similar pleas last month at a meeting of G8 environment ministers in Trieste, Italy. The Kyoto guidelines meeting, originally scheduled for Bonn in early June, was postponed to late July to accommodate the new Administration. Now, the Europeans are feeling hoodwinked: though the Bush White House will send representatives to that meeting, they aren't likely to be bearing instructions to advance the process. Indeed, Greenpeace warned this week in a letter to European Commission President Romano Prodi, "It seems likely that the U.S.A. will attempt to block decisions."
In fact, the Bush Administration still hasn't indicated what if any anti-global warming policies it will be pursuing instead of Kyoto. Last week Whitman was sent to Montreal for a meeting of Western Hemisphere environmental ministers with no policy to advocate. The former New Jersey Governor, considered a moderate, called climate change "a credibility issue'' in a March 6 memo to Bush. Now she looks like a wounded dove in an Administration where the hawks appear ascendant. Says Dan Becker of the Sierra Club, a venerable American conservation group: "People are stunned with how quickly the coal and oil industries got what they wanted."
Environmentalists aren't expecting any alternative proposals from the Bush Administration to come close to the limits U.S. negotiators accepted at Kyoto: a 7% reduction in U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from 1990 levels. The most concrete administrative initiative under way now is an energy task force headed by Vice President Dick Cheney another Western Republican. Later this month it is expected to recommend more oil exploration, research into cleaner burning of coal and new construction of nuclear power plants.
The Bush Administration's critics insist that objections to the form of the international agreement are just a smokescreen; the true problem is the content. "The real issue in the end isn't the Kyoto Protocol," says Bill Hare, Climate Policy Director for Greenpeace. "It's the reduction of greenhouse emissions, and that is what the Bush Administration appears allergic to."
There was never more than a ghost of a chance even under the Clinton Administration that the agreement would be ratified by a skeptical Senate, so some feel that Bush's forthright stance has brought a hidden chasm out in the open. French Environment Minister Voynet suggests that the U.S. decision could have a catalyzing effect. "The reaction has been critical throughout the world," says Voynet. "Even countries that have traditionally and openly been close to the U.S. position, like Canada and Australia, haven't followed its lead. Following the failure of the Hague conference we had some doubts about the genuine intentions of some countries but paradoxically the U.S. position has brought everyone together."
She will have plenty of company in pushing for the European Union countries to ratify the Kyoto accord in 2002, even if there is no place in it for America, which has 4% of the world's population but generates about 25% of its greenhouse gases. But the E.U.'s own studies have shown that unless European countries start implementing changes themselves, they will miss their own Kyoto target: instead of 8% below 1990 levels, the Union is on course to be 6% above by 2012.
The Bush position on Kyoto offers yet another reason for Europeans to question whether after eight years of Clinton talking of multilateralism without necessarily moving it forward Bush's America is abandoning even the pretext. "In Europe, we're seeing an attitude shift from complacency to some alarm," says Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The alarmist catalog would begin with National Missile Defense, move to the worsening relationship with Russia, and take in the harder line on North Korea and Iraq, and finally the tepid support for the E.U.'s ambitions in foreign and security policy. The U.K., a frequent arbiter between the U.S. and the Continent, couldn't close the gap this time. Environment Minister Michael Meacher criticized the U.S. and called global warming "the most dangerous and fearful challenge to humanity over the next 100 years." Even the burgeoning polluter China called the U.S. "irresponsible."
Can that barely latent anti-Americanism be harnessed to the cause of global climate control? The Greens in the European Parliament, decrying the White House's "irresponsible and egoistic approach to this global threat," called last week for a boycott of American oil companies like ExxonMobil and Texaco. Others, such as Stephan Singer of wwf International, think such moves are counterproductive. "American companies aren't that concerned with whether a few thousand people less buy their gas in Europe," he says. "A boycott will just let the Europeans off the hook." In fact, Europe and the rest of the world now seem determined to ratify a Kyoto agreement; the hope is that the Americans will join later. That will depend on the factor Bush considers paramount: economics. If the global market favors companies that make low-fuel automobiles, effective windmills and solar batteries, then American companies will press their government in a different direction. But how long that will take is even less easily predicted than the fretful process of global warming itself.