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Honolulu climate meeting in political perspective
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The ongoing meeting of the world's major economies on climate change in Honolulu, Hawaii, aimed to build on guidelines forged last month at a UN summit in Bali, Indonesia, for reaching a treaty by the end of 2009 on cutting global greenhouse gas emissions.

However, for the United States, as the host, the meeting has deep political implications, too, both in international and domestic perspectives.

One major incentive for the Bush administration to bring the world's 16 major economies plus the United Nations to Hawaii to discuss climate change is to show the world that it really wants to do more to address global warming.

"The major economies process is designed to contribute to and advance the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations," said Paula Dobriansky, undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs.

Mending fences 

Many political analysts said the Honolulu meeting could serve as an important chance for the US government to mend international fences after it faced sharp criticism in Bali for its less-than-cooperative stance.

In terms of a worldwide perception on environmental issues, "the United States has reached the lowest point I've ever seen," said Philip Clapp, deputy managing director of Pew Environment Group, a research and advocacy group.

"In the final session of Bali, we were abandoned even by our closest allies," Clapp noted.

Andrew Hoffman, who studies business, environmentalism and sustainability at the University of Michigan, said it would behoove the United States to come out with some substantive proposals in Hawaii, especially in the wake of the Bali criticism.

"If they come to this table without any kinds of sincere proposals to go forward, I think they're just going to open themselves up to more embarrassment," Hoffman said.

However, the Bush administration will still stick to its familiar positions – some of them are globally unpopular – on how the country should deal with the issue, since it will fall to the next US president to sign off on the next global climate agreement.

While the United States joined more than 180 other countries in Bali in agreeing to develop a new treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, its negotiators refused to bow to pressure from the European Union (EU) and others to impose mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions.

Voluntary, not mandatory, caps have been President George W. Bush's unwavering stance since he took office in 2001, and US officials held firm to that position in Hawaii.

The Bush administration is not ashamed of being the only developed nation staying out of the Kyoto Protocol and the accusation that it is resisting mandatory pollution reduction goals is not "accurate", Boyden Gray, the US special envoy to the EU, told a press briefing at Honolulu on Wednesday.

Commenting on the EU's commitment to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, Gray insisted that the US government is doing more "aggressively" in environmental protection, citing the energy bill signed by Bush last month.

The bill mandates the first major increase in vehicle fuel efficiency standards over three decades.

One idea the Bush administration is pushing in Hawaii is to increase worldwide funding of technologies aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

But analysts said the United States risks international embarrassment if its climate ideas are found wanting by the major nations attending the Hawaii meeting.

In Bali, the EU threatened to boycott the Hawaii summit unless the US government agreed to take part in a new round of global climate talks.

Other countries booed the United States during the negotiations, and representatives of the island country of Papua New Guinea publicly pleaded to the world's biggest superpower to either lead or get out of the way.

Furthermore, former US Vice President Al Gore complained, "My own country, the United States, is principally responsible for obstructing progress here in Bali."

Growing domestic pressures 

On the domestic front, the Bush administration is also under growing political pressures to move beyond its resistance to mandatory pollution reduction.

One reason is that most major contenders in this year's presidential election is favoring hard targets for greenhouse gas emissions and the issue has become a hot topic on the campaign trail.

Democratic presidential election front-runners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both pledged to cut US emissions by 80 percent from the 1990 level by 2050, saying this can only be achieved by legal caps on emissions.

The leading Republican presidential candidate John McCain has made similar promises, but he is only aiming for 65 percent cuts by 2050.

As for other Republican candidates, Mike Huckabee also supports emission caps, though he has not proposed any specific target for cuts.

The Bush administration officials tried to play down the expectation for a sharp turn in post-Bush climate policy.

This year's US presidential election is unlikely to have a great impact on the consistency of the country's climate policy, Andy Karsner, assistant secretary of energy told Xinhua Wednesday.

Speaking at a press briefing on the sideline of economies meeting, held at Honolulu on January 30-31, Karsner said that the groundwork of US climate policy is actually laid down by mid-level officials who are often bipartisan.

"We are building a continuity in the civil service," he said.

Karsner also said that whoever becomes the new president, whether Republican or Democrat, he must make climate policy decision based on broad bipartisan support.

However, analysts said the appeals for mandatory pollution reduction targets have become a growing consensus in the United States, and the Bush administration's unpopular stance on climate change could hurt Republican candidates.

Although Bush is still resisting compulsory targets for pollution reduction, 22 US states with about 145 million people are exploring mandatory carbon-dioxide caps and emission-credit markets similar to that of the EU.

"The clear message from the states is that we need mandatory action", said Elliot Diringer, director of international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

"There appears to be consensus within the United States and abroad that we need to move beyond the voluntary approach," Diringer said.

The two-day closed-door conference in Honolulu, known as the Major Economics Meeting on Energy Security and Climate Change, has drawn representatives from the United Nations, EU as well as 16 major economies.

(Xinhua News Agency February 1, 2008)

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