Washington Climate Change Conference: Undermining the UN?

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice opened a two-day conference on climate change in Washington DC on Thursday, insisting that the meeting was not intended to undermine the United Nations’ efforts to forge a new global framework for mandatory cuts to greenhouse gas emissions and defending the Bush administration’s record on climate change.

“We come together today because we agree that climate change is a real problem — and that human beings are contributing to it,” she said in her opening speech. “I want to stress that the United States takes climate change very seriously.”

Among the delegates were officials from Australia, Britain, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Russia and South Africa – who combined account for 90 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change representatives from the European Union and the United Nations were also in attendance.

“The purpose of this gathering … is to ensure that all of us are working pragmatically toward a common purpose, to contribute to a new international framework for addressing climate change beyond Kyoto and to help all nations fulfill their responsibilities under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change,” said Dr Rice. “The United States supports the goals of that event.”

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hosted the day-long Framework Convention on Climate Change in New York on Monday to help accelerate the global response to global warming and to build momentum for the major climate change summit to be held in December in Bali, Indonesia. Officials from over 150 nations gathered to discuss strategies for mitigation, adaptation, the global carbon market and financing responses in an effort to develop a blueprint for an agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012.

But on Thursday, Dr Rice stressed that individual “nations should tackle climate change in the ways that they deem best” – marking the Bush administration’s long-standing resistance to mandatory emissions caps articulated by UN protocols.

This approach has been rejected as inadequate to meet the challenges of global warming by most US allies in Europe and around the world. On Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel used her address to the UN General Assembly to make clear that individual approaches could “never replace” a binding global UN framework.

“Any contribution from individual or groups of states is welcome,” said Dr Merkel. “However I would like to add most emphatically that such contributions can only complement a post-Kyoto agreement under the auspices of the United Nations. They can never replace it.” She called for global greenhouse gas emissions to be halved by the year 2050.

Defending the progress made under the Bush administration’s approach, which advocates individual voluntary targets, Dr Rice cited “new mandates on renewable fuels and appliance efficiency” in the US and said that “President Bush is working to reduce our gasoline consumption by up to 20 percent in ten years, and to cut greenhouse gases through aggressive new mandatory standards for alternative fuels and improved vehicle efficiency.”

However, the Washington Post was quick to point out on Thursday that the Bush administration had done little to promote these much-touted initiatives and in some cases had strenuously opposed them. In one case, the administration’s repeated delays to set improved energy-efficiency standards for 22 appliances led to a court battle with the Natural Resources Defense Council; under a settlement reached in 2006, the Energy Department is now finalizing these standards. In a separate lawsuit, the NRDC managed to overturn the White House’s previous reversal of strict efficiency standards for air conditioners.

President Bush’s recent endorsement of improved gasoline mileage for cars in the US – announced during his 2007 State of the Union Address – is also some considerable way from being introduced as regulation. And although the Bush administration has voiced support for renewable portfolio standards, which would require utilities to use set levels of renewable energy, it opposes the adoption of nationwide standards.

In December 2006, the US Supreme Court heard its first case dealing with climate change when the state of Massachusetts (and eleven other states, three cities and environmental groups) challenged the US Environmental Protection Agency’s refusal to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. The EPA maintained that it had no authority or obligation to regulate the emissions and that the science of climate change was “uncertain” – based on a 2001 National Academy of Sciences/National Research Counsel report entitled Climate Change Science.

In that case, the scientists who authored the report hit back with an amicus brief which stated that the EPA has misrepresented their findings. “The science of climate change indicates that it is virtually certain that greenhouse gas emissions from human activities cause global climate changes, endangering human health and welfare,” stated the brief. “There was and is sufficient scientific evidence to enable the EPA to make a determination under the Clean Air Act that greenhouse gas emissions may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.”

The Supreme Court recently handed down its decision that the EPA has the authority and responsibility to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

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