Today’s headlines are full of the news that President Bush is "unveiling a new climate strategy." If your immediate reaction is cynicism, well … looks like you learned something over the last seven years. Let’s look a little closer.

President Bush. Photo:

In a speech today, Bush said he wants to convene a series of meetings of the 15 major GHG emitting countries to hammer out “global emissions goals.”

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To give credit where it’s due, there is considerable symbolic significance to the news that the U.S. is shifting from a stance of truculent foot-dragging to active engagement. Perhaps he’s desperate for a PR boost, or perhaps he’s just realized the pressure is too great to keep fighting directly, but for whatever reason, Bush’s rhetorical shift sends a welcome if long overdue signal. Unfortunately, the shift is only rhetorical.

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Take the series of meetings. You’ll recall that the international community has already been holding a series of meetings on climate change, ever since 1995, under the unwieldy rubric of Conferences of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Just last November, COP-11 was held in Montreal. It was marked, as the previous COP meetings have been, by U.S. intransigence.

The G8 summits have struggled to address climate change as well. Indeed, Tony Blair tried to make climate change a top agenda item for 2005’s G8 summit; he even flew to D.C. to beg for Bush’s support. But that summit was marked by … U.S. intransigence.

Then there was the 2005 Davos World Economic Forum, where Blair again begged Bush to move on climate change. Again … intransigence. And that’s not all. Virtually every international summit or meeting of the last few years has been marked by urgent concern over climate change and a refusal by the U.S. to engage in good-faith efforts to tackle it.

So what will be different about these meetings? Here’s a couple of key facts to keep in mind:

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  • The meetings will be convened by the U.S. and held on U.S. territory; the U.S. will control the agenda.
  • Merkel and Blair want the G8 countries to commit to immediate action; the talks Bush proposes will run through to the end of 2009. That’s a lot of talk on a subject that’s been talked to death.
  • The U.S. has strongly and unambiguously rejected the emission targets agreed to by the other developed nations (~50% cuts from 1990 levels by 2050). That’s why the meetings are about emissions goals rather than targets. The difference? Goals are voluntary. The U.S. under Bush will never agree to hard targets or mandates.
  • There’s great significance to the fact that Bush wants the “top 15 GHG emitters” at the meetings. That means he won’t get any commitments that aren’t agreed to by China and India, which are among the only other nations to refuse to agree to binding targets. Two things are accomplished by setting things up so that China and India have veto power over a final agreement: 1) you won’t get any binding targets, and 2) you establish that China and India are obligated to pledge GHG reductions equal to the U.S. and other developed countries, despite the fact that the developed countries are responsible for the vast bulk of the GHG already in the atmosphere, and still far exceed China and India in per-capita emissions. The last thing Bush wants is for the world to agree that the developed countries owe a greater commitment based on economic and social justice concerns.
  • Judging by Bush’s speech, one of his principal goals is to "eliminate tariffs on clean energy technologies." In plain English, that means giving U.S. companies favorable trade deals to sell "clean coal" and nuclear technology to developing countries. This is something Bush’s corporate backers have long wanted; climate change is a way to sell it. I’m guessing Bush will not be proposing to remove any U.S. tariffs, like, say, the one on sugar-cane ethanol from Brazil.

As you can see — and as you would expect — this announcement from Bush is not a genuine change of heart on climate change. The U.S. still will not agree to any emission reduction targets. It will not agree that the developed countries bear primary responsibility for climate change. It will not sign on to the growing consensus among developed nations about how to tackle the problem

This announcement is an attempt to run out the clock on the Bush administration without committing to anything but sweetheart deals for corporate backers.

Same as it ever was.