The WikiLeaks cables available so far shed light on how desperate the Bush Administration was to convince European leaders that technology could be a magic bullet to address climate change without a carbon price or binding international agreements.

In its last years, the Bush Administration, while repeatedly downplaying climate change and rejecting international agreements to address it, heavily backed investment in new technology as a single solution to global warming, ramping up funding for research into new fuel technologies, much of it by established energy giants such as Exxon and the US coal industry. It backed this approach, establishing a “Major Economies Meeting on Energy Security and Climate Change” in 2007 as a vehicle for pushing its preferred approach of “voluntary emissions reductions supplemented by technological innovation”.

The Howard government happily fell into line with the US approach, given its shared the Administration’s scepticism about climate change. In 2005, Australia joined the Bush Administration to promote the “Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate”, centring on investment in “clean fossil fuel energy”, nuclear power and renewable energy. The Howard government at that stage was flirting with nuclear power, later backing off only after a report by Ziggy Switkowski found it would require a high carbon price and Labor began campaigning on the issue.

The Bush Administration’s relations with Europe over climate change are dominated by its attempt to convince the Europeans that its approach amounted to genuine action — in fact leadership — on climate change.

Preparations for the May 2007 visit to Washington by the Swedish Prime Minister suggested the Swedes and the US were on a similar page. In Sweden, the US Embassy had launched a project called “The One Big Thing” to promote alternative technology investment. “The embassy’s initiative … has helped ease the path for the more constructive tone of discussions on climate change,” the embassy told Washington. “The emergence of the new centre-right government — reflexively more pro-American and pro-business — has been fortuitous. PM Reinfeldt and his ministers want to work with us, understand well the need for technology-based solutions to energy needs, and recognize that important new opportunities exist for Swedish business which is on the cutting edge of alternative energy technology and research.”

But the first visit of French President Sarkozy to Washington a few months later was more problematic. “Despite extensive US-French collaboration in developing next generation climate-friendly technologies,” the Paris Embassy wrote, “the French also criticise what they see as US over-reliance on yet-to-be-developed technologies (carbon capture and storage, second generation bio-fuels, and advanced nuclear) to address emissions. France is sceptical that China and India and other major emerging economies will take steps to reduce emissions unless the US moves first. This is an opportunity to convince Sarkozy that we take this issue seriously and have a concrete plan to make real progress.”

A few months later, in May 2008 when Bush visited France, there was a more concerned tone to the briefing of the President. Sarkozy needed to be “sensitised” to the US view that investment in new technology was the key, the Paris Embassy said. “Ninety percent of the French public considers climate change as one of the gravest issues facing mankind and many still cannot understand why the US failed to accept the Kyoto Protocol. When Sarkozy was elected President, he challenged the US to assume a leadership role. Over the past year, the French have begun to appreciate our active engagement on this issue … this does not mean that the French share all US positions in the Major Economies Meeting (on Energy Security and Climate Change). For example, they thought our medium-term greenhouse gas emissions reduction target (capping emissions at 2025 levels) much too modest …”

The Germans, too, were stubbornly insistent that an international agreement on reducing emissions was important. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley visited Berlin in January 2008 and was told “Chancellor Merkel and the rest of Germany’s political leadership remain serious about pursuing aggressive international measures to meet the challenges of global warming. Merkel has made climate change a priority of her chancellorship and enjoys the overwhelming domestic support on this. Merkel’s support for mandatory, targeted global limits on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and an international 
cap-and-trade regime reflects a deep-seated belief that only drastic, concerted efforts on the part of the international community can slow — and ultimately reverse — the human contribution to global warming.

“While the Germans have been willing to consider alternative solutions, such as new
technologies for clean coal and renewables, fundamental differences in our approaches to the issue of climate change remain, and could lead to more public disagreement in the future.”

What’s interesting in retrospect is how little has changed in terms of US or Australian policy despite the change in governments. The Rudd government massively expanded Australian investment in clean coal technology research, and was lauded by the Obama Administration for doing so, with Barack Obama making a point of congratulating Rudd on his focus on clean coal at a G8 meeting. Neither government has introduced a carbon price or cap-and-trade emissions abatement scheme. There’s strong continuity between the Bush-Howard approach to climate change and the Obama-Rudd/Gillard approach.

Peter Fray

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