Posturing on climate

And the nominees for best actor at an international summit are: President George W. Bush, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Australian Prime Minister John Howard. All are giving compelling performances in Sydney this week in the against-type role of leaders who give a fig about global warming.

Climate change tops the agenda at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which wraps up Sunday. It’s an unusual topic for a 21-nation club formed mostly to negotiate trade agreements -- amid all the talk about global warming, Malaysian International Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz noted archly that the “E” in APEC stood for Economic, not Environmental -- but many of the leaders present have political reasons for at least pretending to care about the issue.

Howard, who is fighting for his political life against a much greener opposition party leader, has the most at stake. Australia is suffering severe droughts and wildfires, and polls show that the environment is among Australians’ top concerns. His goal is to persuade the U.S., China and Russia -- the world’s three biggest polluters -- to sign an “aspirational” agreement for reducing greenhouse gases. For aspirational, read: voluntary, vague and useless for anything but padding a fading prime minister’s environmental resume. The heads of state are expected to sign the agreement today.

Even before most of the world leaders arrived, Howard and Bush had signed their own joint statement on climate change, a 16-point plan in which the two countries announced their commitment to practical action without actually proposing any. Bush threw out a few platitudes about global warming during his speech Friday before quickly moving on to a subject with which he’s more comfortable: fighting terrorists.

Hu, meanwhile, in the diplomatic tradition of Chinese leaders, politely told Howard to drop dead. He emphasized that the United Nations, not APEC, was the appropriate forum for negotiating climate deals, and that although he welcomed the discussion in Sydney, any agreement at this week’s summit must acknowledge that different countries have “differentiated responsibilities.” Translation: Don’t expect much from China.

Unfortunately, the festival of fakery won’t end Sunday. Bush is convening his own international meeting on climate change this month in Washington, and given his focus on voluntary measures and nonexistent technology to solve the problem, there’s no reason to expect anything meaningful to come of it. The only hope of progress this year comes from Congress, which is debating energy bills that would crack down on automotive fuel efficiency and require that the nation get more of its power from renewable sources. That won’t slow emissions in China, and it’s nowhere near enough to halt climate change, but it’s a start.

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