Recently, in Moscow, at the meeting of G8 Finance Ministers, the Europeans gave us a repeat performance of an all-too-familiar pattern: they appeased George Bush at the expense of the global environment.

Show us the money.

Photo: iStockphoto.

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At last year’s Gleneagles summit of the G8 industrialized nations, the G8 leaders, led by the Europeans, invested considerable political capital to find common ground on climate change. While they failed to persuade George Bush to agree on what arrangements should take the place of the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012, they persuaded Bush to join in calling climate change a serious problem that warrants urgent action. More specifically, Bush reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to a 1992 climate treaty (which, unlike Kyoto, the United States has ratified). That treaty requires industrialized nations to assist developing nations to grow cleanly, and Bush pledged at Gleneagles to do more to help poor nations obtain climate-friendly energy technologies. The Gleneagles consensus was at best a limited success, but the commitment to work with developing nations on clean energy seemed promising.

Well, that was last year.

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A few weeks ago, however, Bush proposed cutting U.S. funding by 50 percent for the leading global institution that helps poor nations acquire clean energy technologies. The Global Environment Facility, a little-known but critically important arm of three international agencies — the World Bank, the U.N. Development Program, and U.N. Environment Program — assists poor developing nations fight climate change, pursue sustainable development and manage their natural resources. To date the GEF has provided grants for 1,500 projects in 140 countries, and these projects have reduced climate pollution by an amount more than France or Italy emit annually. The GEF also has conserved about 689 million acres of national parks and protected areas, thereby helping secure livelihoods for poor and indigenous communities. The GEF, importantly, is the one and only official funding mechanism of the very climate treaty Bush promised to support at Gleneagles.

While the international community has suspected since November that President Bush plans to slash GEF funding, European leaders have remained silent and passive. Even though finance ministers from Germany, the U.K., France, and Italy help oversee the GEF, and also play a major role in implementing the Gleneagles commitments, they have yet to confront U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow, let alone engage their heads of government to lobby the White House. Of course, Europe’s silence has been devastating to the GEF’s champions in America. U.S. environmental organizations have little standing to complain about Bush breaking international commitments if other major countries seem willing to accept America’s backsliding.

The Bush administration claims that the GEF, like the United Nations, needs to be reformed. Greater efficiency and accountability are reasonable goals. That’s why Europe rightly joined the United States in pushing through a reform package for the GEF only last year. In the wake of these recent successful reforms, America’s proposed funding cuts are entirely indefensible.

Europe wailed publicly about Bush’s rejection of Kyoto in 2001 but said remarkably little to the president and his senior advisers in private. The president could well conclude that Europe’s professed interest in climate change was driven by domestic politics more than genuine concern. Since then, Europe has either failed to raise global climate change or other environmental concerns at the highest level, or has folded when rebuffed (see Gleneagles). It seems on course to be even less forceful this time. If Europe wants really to be a global leader on the environment, it needs to do more.

What specifically? First, it should state publicly that Bush’s budget proposal for the GEF is completely at odds with America’s international commitments and therefore unacceptable. Second, it should work constructively with the United States to strengthen the GEF through any necessary, sensible new reforms. Third, it should insist that the United States commit to continue to fully fund the GEF if further reforms are negotiated within the next year. The United States would have no legitimate basis for resisting this compromise.

Germany and the U.K are logical leaders of such an effort. Germany because Chancellor Angela Merkel, a former German minister of the environment, might well seek achievable opportunities that, without threatening the new, better German/U.S. relationship, would put it on a new footing — an unsentimental partnership based on realistic attention to agendas important to both nations, replacing a partnership based heavily on gratitude and sentiment. And the U.K. because Prime Minister Tony Blair has made it clear, at Gleneagles and otherwise, that addressing climate change is a central aim of his administration.

Complacency regarding the GEF risks undermining one of the few tools the international community has to address greenhouse-gas emissions in developing nations. Meaningful action by those nations is a prerequisite to success in the global fight against climate change. Europe must rise to the occasion.