When George W. Bush was seeking to become president, he made it clear that he thought the provisions of the Kyoto Protocol, an international pact to limit greenhouse gas emissions and slow global climate change, were too burdensome to be adopted.
Now that Bush is preparing to become an ex-president, it has occurred to him that it is incumbent upon the leader of the world's largest economy (and greenhouse gas producer) to propose an alternative approach. But, as he strove during the week to be something other than a skunk at the G-8 garden party, all the president really came up with is an invitation to start the sort of negotiations that should have started as he began his administration, not as he ends it.
Bush remains behind the curve, as the leaders of the United Kingdom and Germany already are working toward firm reductions of carbon emissions and toward bringing booming economies that were ignored by the Kyoto process into the fold. There's reason to be suspicious that Bush's proposals are a way for him to appear to be taking the lead on an issue that he has actually been a global obstruction to during his whole time in office.
But there are also two useful breakthroughs to be heard in the president's remarks calling for a new approach to climate change. One is that he seems to understand that there is such a thing and that it needs to be dealt with. That's sad.
The other is that he wants the world's 15 largest greenhouse gas producers -- including the rapidly growing generators of China and India -- to be part of the process. That's good.
Throughout all of the stages of the Bush administration's approach to climate change -- fear, anger, denial, etc. -- the best point raised by Kyoto skeptics was that any approach that didn't expect something from China and India was rather pointless. Those nations' increasing thirst for energy, and their tendency to get it by burning large amounts of coal, are a major cause of the problem.
So, if Bush wants to hold a summit of world leaders to thoughtfully ponder the question of how best to close the barn door now that the horse has run away and died, it's a step in the right direction. But the opportunity to steer the conversation in a way that might be more advantageous to the United States and its interests is already long gone, as leadership on the issue has fallen to others.
"The United States," says Bush, "takes this issue seriously."
But, because he cannot say that the United States took this issue seriously, Bush still stands to be remembered as the man who got in the way.