FORMAL international meetings, such as the gathering of the world's largest economies that begins today in Germany, are a lot like holiday dinners in quarreling families. For all involved, the overwhelming priority usually is to get through the visit without anyone making a scene.
On most occasions, that's understandable. Euphemism and the discreet suppression of disagreement are often essential ingredients of diplomacy. But those approaches offer a recipe for failure at this week's annual G-8 summit, which convenes the U.S. and seven other major industrialized nations. On the summit's most important issue -- global climate change -- the first step toward building a workable consensus is to candidly admit its absence.
Heading into the meeting, President Bush moved toward the group on some important issues. He has received widespread applause for proposing to double American funding to fight HIV/AIDS in the developing world, and generally positive responses for his push to toughen sanctions on Sudan over the violence in Darfur.
But on global warming, Bush arrives in a familiar position: obdurately isolated from most of Washington's traditional allies. German Chancellor Angela Merkel (a conservative like Bush) and most of the rest of the G-8 members want the group to commit to a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 as the centerpiece of an agenda to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. (Scientists say anything higher would significantly multiply the risk of disruptive climate changes.) Their hope, as one negotiator put it, is to send "an electric jolt" into ongoing United Nations negotiations aimed at formulating a successor to the Kyoto agreement on global warming.
But Bush opposes mandatory emissions reductions, and the White House has rejected the proposals for specific G-8 commitments as "fundamentally incompatible with the president's approach." Instead, last week Bush proposed talks in which the countries that produce the most greenhouse gases would set their own voluntary national reduction goals and also agree on a longer-term, but again voluntary, global reduction target.
Bush's international talks would attempt to set those goals by year's end 2008. That's also the deadline he established for the Environmental Protection Agency to respond to the recent Supreme Court decision ordering it to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automotive tailpipes unless it can identify a compelling reason not to. It's probably no coincidence that both those deadlines kick in only as Bush checks out of the White House.
Though Bush's proposal for talks among the largest polluters suspiciously resembles a delaying action, it may be possible to excavate something positive from it. The key is to separate form from substance. Many critics condemn Bush's proposal because of its form: They believe his parallel emissions talks would undercut the U.N.'s. But as David Miliband, the young British environment minister, said during a Washington visit Tuesday: "It's never a bad thing for people to have informal discussions.... If it comes to a consensus position that feeds into the U.N. process, that's for the good."
The problem isn't Bush's call for direct talks; it's what he's willing to talk about. Bush, admirably, wants to discuss expanding research into green energy sources, from solar and wind power to biofuels. But by rejecting mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, Bush shelves the most effective tool to move those technologies from the lab to the marketplace. As Miliband notes, emission caps "are drivers of technological advance" because they pressure industry and consumers to seek alternatives to fossil fuels. Trillions of dollars are now invested in the fossil fuel status quo. Without requirements to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the world won't shift to cleaner new technologies at anywhere near the pace necessary to prevent dangerous climate change.
There is virtually no chance G-8 leaders will convince Bush to accept binding emissions reductions this week. At that point, the leaders committed to serious action will face a choice. They can confect a communique that hides their disagreement with Bush behind sugary language about "frank discussions" and "common goals." Or they can clearly state -- in the communique or the separate chairman's statement that Merkel will publish -- that they believe Bush's pathway of voluntary reductions is a dead end. Even that probably wouldn't move Bush, but it would add important voices to the U.S. business executives, ex-military officials and political leaders in Congress and the states demanding compulsory reductions in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
The best way for the G-8 nations to build a genuine partnership with the U.S. on climate change is to acknowledge that such a partnership doesn't exist today. Even if that makes for a few uncomfortable moments around the dinner table.