European Unity, Leadership on Climate Change

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The Boston Globe

European Unity, Leadership on Climate Change

A EUROPEAN UNION divided on everything from farm subsidies to immigration, and reluctant to confront the United States over a war that most Europeans considered a disaster from the start, has found new unity and self-confidence on the issue of global climate change.

The assertiveness of Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, at the Group of Eight meetings in early June caught President Bush's advisers off guard, but only because they were not paying attention.

This is a continent where people willingly pay taxes that price motor fuels at over $6 a gallon; where toll roads are kept expensive but rail tickets are dirt cheap; and where national governments have already set targets for reducing carbon emissions.

The visitor to Europe notices that farmland comes right up to the edge of cities. This is no accidental residue of medieval walled towns, but the deliberate consequence of public planning to promote dense, energy-efficient living patterns and to reduce sprawl. European cities vie with one another to achieve the greenest lifestyles.

European governments have invested heavily in alternative energy technologies, and induced utilities to rely increasingly on renewable sources. This not only cuts greenhouse emissions, but produces a market for new technologies, making such nations as Spain and Germany export leaders in advanced windmills and solar panels.

European industry is in a can-do mood that seems almost American in its optimism -- but quite un-American in its recognition that private business cannot achieve this transition alone. Some US cities and states have begun such efforts, but Washington has yet to lead.

While Europe's support for more drastic action has been gradually building for over a decade, three recent events were catalysts.

First came the exhaustive report to the British Treasury last fall by Sir Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank. Stern calculated that dealing with climate change could cost as much as 1 percent of gross domestic product, but the costs of not acting could shrink GDP by 20 percent. The science was not new, but the projection of economic disaster for future generations by a respected senior economist got politicians' attention.

"Stern confirmed that climate change is the ultimate case of market failure," observed Allan Larsson, the former EU commissioner for labor and social affairs and now a leading European adviser on the environment. "It restores the legitimacy and necessity of government actions."

Second, as Larsson noted, the failure of French and Dutch voters in 2005 to ratify the proposed new EU constitution left Europe's leaders struggling to find a common project to restore momentum and unity. They found that endeavor in the agreement by national leaders at the European summit in March to reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020. This was the prologue to the tougher European demands at the G-8 meetings.

And third, by the luck of the draw, the rotating EU presidency this spring happened to be held by Merkel, a former minister of environment who is both scientifically knowledgeable and personally dogged. Also by sheer luck, this was the last G-8 meeting attended by Tony Blair, Britain's outgoing prime minister. Blair was determined not to leave office being remembered as Bush's poodle. This time, he proved as tough on Bush as the other Europeans.

In Berlin, the pride in Merkel's leadership on the environment spans the political spectrum. Ever since Germany recovered from World War II and stayed free of Soviet domination almost as an American protectorate, German leaders have been very deferential to Washington. But with climate change, Europe has found an issue where America is the naive partner about one key facet of national security, and where Europe has earned the right to lead and to relish its leadership.

Ironically, what began as an American diplomatic feint ended as a potential breakthrough. The Europeans came to the G-8 proposing that rich nations make binding commitments to reduce emissions in the period after the Kyoto accords expire in 2012. Bush tried an end-run by proposing instead to bring in other nations, such as China and India, under the United Nations framework. In the end, the leaders embraced both goals. One awkward fact was papered over: For now Washington accepts the goals only in principle, but after Bush the new framework could produce real progress.

None of the several officials I interviewed here expects much movement until the next American administration. However, in refreshing contrast to Iraq, where Bush will hand his successor a mess, on climate change -- thanks to European prodding -- he will bequeath an opportunity.

Robert Kuttner

Robert Kuttner is co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect magazine, as well as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the think tank Demos. He was a longtime columnist for Business Week, and continues to write columns in the Boston Globe and Huffington Post. He is the author of A Presidency in Peril: The Inside Story of Obama's Promise, Wall Street's Power, and the Struggle to Control our Economic Future, Obama's Challenge, and other books.

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