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Climate control now measure of Merkel

Germany's leader, host of the G-8 summit, is up against Bush's stance opposing timetables to limit global warming.

June 06, 2007|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — With the leaders of the major industrialized nations arriving at her doorstep today, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is under pressure at home and abroad to persuade President Bush to accept strict measures to limit global warming.

Merkel's reputation as a skilled foreign policy strategist is being scrutinized as members of the Group of 8 meet for three days at the Baltic Sea resort of Heiligendamm. The chancellor has made climate control the centerpiece of her summit agenda, a risky move that affords her little political cover if, as is likely, Bush refuses to budge.

Merkel's rise in German politics has been predicated less on photo ops and campaign speeches than on the tactical negotiations of party politics. Officials say she will need those skills to wrest more concessions from Bush on climate change, and to convince her public that Berlin's efforts to improve relations with Washington have borne more that just rhetoric.

The challenge facing Merkel, a physicist who grew up in the former communist East Germany, is narrowing the gap between Bush's proposal calling on industrialized nations to voluntarily limit climate-altering gases and her ambitious goal to set guidelines and timetables to reduce carbon emissions. Many European officials regard Bush's plan, which was announced last week with no specific targets, as a preemptive strike to weaken Merkel's position.

Critics suggest that the chancellor's stature as an influential international voice is in jeopardy over her government's inability to forge a global warming deal before she, Bush and the leaders of the other G-8 nations -- Britain, Canada, Italy, Japan, Russia and France -- begin talks on subjects including the environment and aid to Africa.

The G-8 summit will "be the moment of [Merkel's] greatest foreign policy defeat," wrote the Financial Times Deutschland. "It is the federal government's own fault that it has failed with its plan to get the G-8 to agree to more ambitious climate targets.... Merkel was too late in recognizing the real extent of her influence on the international stage."

Other commentators place the blame on what they view as Washington's lack of flexibility on environmental issues.

"The U.S. government has isolated itself to a large extent on the climate issue," Torsten Riecke wrote in Handelsblatt. "Not even Bush's favorite European, [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair, supports the U.S.'s obstructive stance. Bush's move is an attempt to postpone the issue once more."

Merkel's aim is to advance the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the United Nations plan to cut greenhouse gases, which the U.S. has refused to sign. The chancellor is calling for global warming to rise no more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050 and for nations to reduce their emissions by then to half of what they were in 1990. The plan has largely been embraced by Europe, but U.S. negotiators have said Washington opposes such measures.

Bush's proposal urges the U.S. and other countries to start a campaign to limit greenhouse gases and set long-term goals for reductions that include technological innovations.

The Bush administration has long opposed mandatory emissions targets, fearing they would hurt industry and slow the economy.

Merkel has begun to muffle summit expectations. She won conditional support from Blair and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper but said Sunday that an agreement among all eight members was unlikely. She pledged not to significantly alter her proposal, especially the 3.6-degree ceiling.

"We will conduct highly constructive talks with all of our partners and nobody will be forced into a corner," Merkel told Der Spiegel on Sunday. She added: "One thing is clear. We must agree on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012, as part of the process led by the United Nations. There will certainly be other meetings and initiatives before then. They can even be helpful. What matters is that they all eventually merge into the U.N. process. This is nonnegotiable."

German government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm said Tuesday that "we will fight until the very last moment for concrete wording" regarding the summit's final statement on global warming.

The matter has agitated U.S.-German relations, which had been improving since Merkel came to power in 2005.

The Iraq war and the treatment of suspected Islamic militants in U.S. custody have kept Bush's ratings low in opinion polls across Europe. But Merkel's pragmatic style and affinity for the U.S. have led to greater cooperation with Washington, including Berlin sending more troops to Afghanistan.

German politicians expected the U.S. to respond in kind and move closer to Merkel's emissions plan, so as not to embarrass the summit's host.

But an editorial in the conservative Die Welt suggested that the showdown over climate control could still benefit the chancellor, even without a Bush compromise.

"It's a paradox that this failure can lead to a double success," the paper stated. "By defying her friend George, the most powerful man in the world, Merkel gets rid of her image as Bush's lap dog. And with her determination on climate protection she proves that it doesn't take a Green [Party politician] to fight for a green subject.... On the eve of the summit, Merkel has successfully found her role as a herald for a better world."


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