WASHINGTON -- President Bush for the first time yesterday called for a concerted international response to reduce the risks from global warming, saying the United States and 14 other countries that produce large amounts of greenhouse gases should set a "long-term global goal" as well as individual goals by the end of next year to reduce those emissions.
The initiative represents a turnaround for the president, who has frustrated environmentalists by refusing to set any mandatory goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States since taking office six years ago. Bush, a former Texas oilman, first publicly uttered the words "climate change" in his State of the Union address earlier this year.
His announcement comes amid intense developments, including a series of international scientific reports all but confirming that human activity has caused global warming. Lawmakers in Congress have produced more than a dozen pending bills related to climate change , and next week a proposal to reduce global emissions will be the centerpiece of the Group of Eight summit of major industrialized countries in Heiligendamm , Germany.
Just days ago, European leaders were furious at the White House for rejecting a proposal to cut international greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050. But yesterday in a speech, Bush said he was committed to a major international plan to fight global warming -- and declared he would work toward eliminating trade tariffs and would share US technologies on alternative energy, from solar to wind to nuclear power, with any country.
"The United States takes this issue seriously," Bush said. ". . . My proposal is this: By the end of next year, America and other nations will set a long-term global goal for reducing greenhouse gases."
But prominent skeptics said the president has yet to commit himself to anything tangible, and would receive a report on his proposal just three weeks before leaving office -- the same time he is due to get a plan to cut US motor vehicle emissions. That plan was prompted by a US Supreme Court ruling that the administration erred when it insisted it had no power to regulate auto emissions under the Clean Air Act.
"This is a rope-a-dope strategy," said US Representative Edward J. Markey , the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. "It's an attempt to hoodwink the American people into believing he is actually going to do something about global warming. President Bush has moved from a strategy of denial to a strategy of delay."
The president's proposal for a series of meetings among international policymakers and business leaders -- including representatives from rapidly developing India and China -- closely tracks a plan championed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the 2005 Gleneagles G-8 summit. It also parallels elements of an initiative put forward earlier this year by Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California, who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
Bush's proposal, which advisers said has been five months in the making, does not set a percentage goal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, nor does it commit the administration to imposing mandatory reductions on US industries. Senior White House officials all but ruled out one emissions-cutting strategy favored by Europeans and others: a carbon-trading program in which countries can buy and sell carbon credits to meet goals.
"We've been very concerned about cap-and-trade proposals . . . largely on the grounds that they have tended in the context of climate change not to work very well," said James Connaughton, chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality and Bush's top environmental adviser.
Like Boxer's proposal, Bush's plan would include China, India, and 12 other large developing nations to ensure that all major emitters participate in the program. The 15 nations combined emit more than 80 percent of the world's greenhouse gases -- including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide -- which linger in the earth's atmosphere for years, trapping heat from the sun and contributing to the warming of the planet.
Under his proposal, Bush said, "each country would establish midterm national targets and programs that reflect their own mix of energy sources and future energy needs."
Robert N. Stavins, professor of environmental economics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, said Bush's policy change contained "good news and bad news. The major good news is this is the first time the administration -- and the president in particular -- has actually signaled engagement in international discussions" about global warming and what to do after the Kyoto climate protocol expires in 2012.
The Bush administration strongly opposed the Kyoto agreement on grounds that China and India were not included in the treaty and because the White House believed it would harm the US economy. The agreement would have required the United States to reduce its heat-trapping emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012 -- a goal that even environmentalists concede has been unreachable for some time.
Many activists have focused on reaching a consensus on long-range emissions goals to take effect after Kyoto expires -- something that Bush had not addressed until yesterday.
Stavins said "it's a big mistake" for the White House to reject carbon trading. Swapping carbon credits, Stavins said, "is an important option as a way of making it cost-effective for all countries to address the problem."
Several state officials and environmentalists also found fault with Bush's plan, questioning why he needed further study.
"The action today needs to be on curbing US emissions," said Ian A. Bowles, Massachusetts secretary of energy and environmental affairs. "President Bush can and should take steps on that right now, particularly in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision."
Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, an advocacy group, called Bush's proposal a "transparent effort to divert attention from the president's refusal to accept any emissions-reduction proposals at next week's G-8 summit. After sitting out talks on global warming for years, the Bush administration doesn't have very much credibility with other governments on the issue."
Analysts said they are uncertain how Bush's plan will affect the G-8 discussions next week. Connaughton said Bush has had ongoing discussions on the issue with German Chancellor Angela Merkel , Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper , and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe .
"So we're not starting from scratch here," Connaughton said. ". . . What the president is trying to do here is find that consensus that will allow for forward progress."
John Donnelly can be reached at email@example.com