WASHINGTON—Faced with growing evidence of the threat from global warming, President Bush said Thursday that he would lead an international effort to set long-term goals for reducing emissions that contribute to climate change.
Bush said he would convene meetings with as many as 15 nations beginning this fall, with a goal of producing an emissions-reduction plan by the end of 2008. Environmental groups dismissed the move as a ploy to avoid tougher actions that other nations favor.
Bush and his advisers have rejected calls for strict limits on emissions, and the targets Bush envisioned wouldn't be binding. Countries would have until at least 2050 to try to meet the goals. Bush unveiled his plan as he prepared to join other world leaders at a summit in Germany next week that will consider stricter measures.
Bush's approach to climate change has been a sore point in U.S. relations with Europe since his decision in 2001 to abandon the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement that called for mandatory emissions targets.
"In recent years, science has deepened our understanding of climate change and opened new possibilities for confronting it," he said in presenting his new strategy. "The United States takes this issue seriously."
"Enough talk. It's time for action," said Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's executive director. "The scientists are clear: We need to cut emissions by 80 percent by 2050—starting now."
David Doniger, the climate policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said: "It's too late to slide by on vague calls for unenforceable long-term goals. The president will have no credibility with the countries he wants to bring to the table unless he is committed to specific limits to cap and cut our own global warming pollution."
Greenpeace called the president's proposal "a dangerous sham" and "a distraction from the real task" of cutting emissions.
White House advisers said Bush wants to come up with an effective agreement to cut emissions that would include China, India and Brazil—three rapidly developing countries that were exempted from the Kyoto agreement. The Kyoto agreement, which has fallen short of its ambitious goals even in the countries that ratified it, is set to expire in 2012.
Jim Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said melting ice caps and other signs of climate change have heightened the administration's concerns about global warming.
"That is occurring faster than we thought in 2001," Connaughton said. "We have more information, and we're acting on that information."
The administration, however, continued to send mixed signals on the issue even as Bush promoted his latest strategy.
In an interview with NPR that aired Thursday, the top NASA official questioned whether the government should do anything about global warming.
"I'm aware that global warming exists," NASA administrator Michael Griffin said. "Whether that is a long-term concern or not, I can't say. ... I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with."
Connaughton said Griffin's views don't reflect administration policy or the president's opinion.
"We're dedicated to action," he said. "We're really, really focused now, finally, on the broad effort on solutions."
But Connaughton said administration officials haven't agreed on emissions targets or the end date for reaching the as-yet unspecified emissions goals—other than somewhere in the range of 2050 to 2075.
He rejected calls for a "cap and trade" approach, an idea that has become increasingly popular in Europe and with environmental groups. The cap and trade system imposes limits on emissions, but lets countries exceed the caps by purchasing emission credits from countries that cut emissions below their goals.
Connaughton also rejected German Chancellor Angela Merkel's proposal to focus on temperature. Her "two-degree" plan would try to limit the increase in average temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius—3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Meeting that goal would require reducing emissions to half of what they were in 1990 by 2050.
Merkel intends to present the idea to Bush and other world leaders when she hosts next week's summit.
"We don't think that's a very practical approach," Connaughton said. "You can't manage temperature. You can manage emissions. So that's what the president is talking about."
Connaughton said assessments by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international advisory group, underscore the need for action. A report released in April found that global warming is already affecting the world's oceans and marine life.
The report warned that increased temperatures could lead to droughts in some areas, flooding in coastal regions from melting ice caps, disruptions in food supplies and the extinction of some plants and animals.