Most disappointment with Bush’s proposal fell on the fact that it essentially endorses continued pollution for another 17 years before trying to stabilise emissions, which, observers said, sets a poor example for the very nations the speech was designed to provide an example for.
He was also assailed for perpetuating an eight-year policy of delaying any real decisions geared toward attacking the creeping, yet momentous, climate change problem.
Despite having abandoned the Kyoto treaty on climate change, Bush said the United States as the world’s single biggest polluting nation had shown it was “serious” about reducing growth in climate changing gases such as carbon dioxide.
Yet Bush’s key message still remained that worldwide cuts in emissions should be largely market determined and voluntary, and eschewed the notion that legislation would hasten drastic steps needed toward cutting the United States’ runaway emissions. Most environmentalists felt that Bush’s message on Wednesday was the same vague promises in a new package.
“Bush acknowledged climate change last year, now he realizes shortcomings of the existing policies but still do not want to prescribe the necessary medicines,” said Svend Soeyland, director of Bellona’s Washington office.
The speech was timed to fall on the eve of Bush’s meeting with the world’s major polluting nations in France on Thursday and Friday.
Bush’s major polluters to meet this week
Ministers from 16 nations that all together account for 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are gathering in Paris for the "Major Economies Meeting," the third such meeting in a series launched last September by Bush.
In a White House Rose Garden speech that lasted less than 15 minutes, Bush said:"Today, I am announcing a new national goal – to stop the growth of US greenhouse gas emissions by 2025,"
His remarks came from a speech prepared by James Connaughton, chairman of the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, and gave no base year to which the United States should compare any reductions.
To reach the 2025 goal, Bush proposed that the United States rely heavily on the promises of new technologies – including a ramping up of US nuclear power and so-callled clean coal – and he also extolled a previously announced target to make US vehicles more fuel efficient, which has yet to bear any fruit.
Vague incentives offered for renewable use
Bush also said he would introduce incentives for energy producers in the United States using renewable sources, but, as per habit, steered clear of specifics and made no mention of what kind of incentives such a policy would include during his Rose Garden speech, which lasted less than 15 minutes.
“The same president who set carbon capture and storage back to the starting blocks recently, and opposed beefed up incentives last fall for renewables apparently had a change of heart,” said Soeyland.
Bush said to reach the 2025 goal, "we will need to more rapidly slow the growth of power-sector greenhouse gas emissions so that they peak within 10 to 15 years, and decline thereafter."
But the text of Bush’s speech did not detail new legal mandates on industry to bring down emissions, and warned Congress against passing new legislation that might economically hobble industry and families alike.
“Growing emissions for 10-15 more years is a far cry from reductions,” said Soeyland.
“The same weak goals for India and China are a huge step in the wrong direction.”
US policy ‘not nearly enough’
Another prominent critic who said Bush was setting a low bar for major polluters like China and India, and that his administration was continuing to delay and dissemble on the issue of climate change, was Dr. Michael Oppenheimer, an author of several of the recent reports from the Nobel Prize winning United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Oppenheimer said that even presuming the stabilization of American emissions was possible by 2025 in the absence of a cap, the White House policy espoused Wednesday would send a signal to other countries, particularly emerging powers – and polluters – like China, to do little more to clean up their own emissions.
“US failure to do more than stabilize emissions by 2025 likely means other developed countries won’t do any more than that, and that then ripples through to China’s position,” he told the New York Times. “The bottom line (on Bush’s proposal): It’s not nearly enough.”
Opposition to climate legislation remains
Bush remains opposed to a Senate bill that would require mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions, calling that proposal unrealistic and economically harmful.
"I believe that congressional debate should be guided by certain core principles and a clear appreciation that there is a wrong way and a right way to approach reducing greenhouse gas emissions," Bush said.
"Bad legislation would impose tremendous costs on our economy and American families without accomplishing the important climate change goals we share."
Kyoto’s binding commitments, which Bush has rejected, expire in 2012. The White House has been accused of trying to force through a diluted new regime that will focus on voluntary action rather than mandatory cuts.
Bush, having attacked Kyoto for its failure to apply binding gas targets on fast-growing China and India, said the United States would not take unilateral action that imperils US industry and jobs.
"The right way is to ensure that all major economies are bound to take action and to work cooperatively with our partners for a fair and effective international climate agreement," he said.
Altogether ‘irresponsible,’ ‘grossly insufficient’ speech
The Sierra Club, the largest US environmental group, said Bush’s target was woefully deficient.
"Scientists tell us that we need to cut total emissions at least 15-20 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050 in order to prevent the most catastrophic effects of global warming," executive director Carl Pope said in a statement.
"Merely halting the growth of emissions is grossly insufficient," he said.
Barbara Boxer, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate’s environment committee, said the Bush plan would still let US gas emissions "reach dangerous levels" and was "the height of irresponsibility."
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, said Bush had flunked the climate change challenge in his final year in office.
Pelosi said Bush should back efforts in Congress to "cap and trade" greenhouse gas emissions, along with individual efforts of states like California that his administration has fought in the courts.
But the White House’s Connaughton, said Bush was focused on realistic goals rather than "fancy rhetoric."
"I challenge any critic … to show us a path that gets us further and faster than the president has proposed in a way that doesn’t harm our economy," he told reporters.
All three presidential candidates—Democratic Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain—favor a more aggressive programme on climate change than does Bush, all supporting mandatory limits on greenhouse gases.