Nothing so far has shamed President Bush into adopting a more aggressive policy toward the threat of global warming. He has been denounced by mainstream scientists, deserted by his progressive friends in industry and sued by seven states. Still he clings stubbornly to a voluntary policy aimed at merely slowing the growth of greenhouse gas emissions, despite an overwhelming body of evidence that only binding targets and a firm timetable will do the job.
Now there is fresh criticism from sources Mr. Bush may find harder to ignore. Last week Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, Mr. Bush's most loyal ally in the debate over Iraq, gently but firmly rebuked the president for abandoning the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on global climate change and for succumbing to the insupportable notion that fighting global warming will impede economic growth.
That was followed by another salvo, from an expert panel assembled by the National Academy of Sciences to assess Mr. Bush's proposals for further research into climate change. Though polite, the panel could hardly have been more contemptuous. It described Mr. Bush's plan as a redundant examination of issues that had largely been settled, bereft of vision, executable goals and timetables — in short, little more than a cover-up for inaction.
Of the two rebukes, Mr. Blair's may have been the more painful. The prime minister said he regarded environmental degradation in general and climate change in particular as "just as devastating in their potential impact" as weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. "There will be no genuine security," he said, "if the planet is ravaged." He also pledged to cut Britain's greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent by midcentury, a longer-range but still a far more ambitious timetable than Kyoto's target of an average 5 percent reduction by industrialized nations by 2012.
Mr. Blair's speech obviously served the political purpose of distancing himself from the White House, at least on this issue, at a time when many of his countrymen have criticized him for his support of Mr. Bush on Iraq. It should also be noted that, in strictly economic terms, it is easier for Mr. Blair to hold the high ground on this issue than it is for Mr. Bush. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's wrenching decision some years ago to convert Britain's energy base from coal to natural gas, a much cleaner fuel, has already moved Britain closer to Mr. Blair's lofty targets than it otherwise would have been.
Nevertheless, the prime minister's approach is everything Mr. Bush's is not. It conveys a sense of urgency, calls for common sacrifice and offers a coherent vision of how to get from here to there. It is, in short, a recipe for the leadership that until not too long ago the world had been looking to America to provide.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company