Paris: In 2004, climate change did not even rate a mention in the summary of the Group of Eight (G8) summit at Sea Island, Georgia.
Today, it is the issue that may make or break the rich nations’ get-together in Heiligendamm, Germany. Summit host German Chancellor Angela Merkel faces an unenviable choice.
She can insist that the summit endorse an ambitious plan for tackling greenhouse gases, although to do so would dangerously isolate President George W Bush or she can climb down and submit to a fudge that will badly damage her standing at home and across Europe.
This potential crisis has been brewing for months, driven by science and public opinion, say seasoned watchers of the climate debate. “The public knows climate change is here, now, and is demanding political leaders to lead by example,” Hans Verolme of environmental group WWF told AFP. “Expectations are high.”
Here’s why climate change is now such a big deal:
An escalating threat: This year, the UN’s top scientific panel declared climate change is already on the march and the effects would be harsh and for poor, vulnerable countries, potentially catastrophic.
Contrary to climate skeptics who say reducing greenhouse-gas emissions would cripple the global economy, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said the cost of tackling the problem is reasonable and the technology for achieving it is already within reach.
Limiting the overall warming since pre-industrial times to 2.0-2.8 C (3.6-5.0 F) would cost less than 0.12% points of annual world GDP growth in 2030, it said.
Hardening opinion: Global warming ranks among the biggest concerns in opinion polls in developed countries.
Awareness is acute in Europe, the world’s most environmentally-sensitive continent. On the heels of the IPCC review, the 27-nation European Union (EU) vowed to cut its emissions by 20% from 1990 levels by 2020.
And it threw down the gauntlet to the United States, offering to deepen this cut to 30% if other major polluters followed suit.
Japan last month called for the world to halve emissions by 2050 -- a goal that Merkel wants to enshrine in the G8 communique, along with a maximum target for warming of 2 C (3.6 F) over 1990. Both figures have been bluntly rejected by US negotiators.
Time Running out for Kyoto: Europe has been looking to the G8 to revive the sickly Kyoto Protocol process.
Negotiations for a successor to Kyoto after the emissions-cutting treaty expires in 2012 take place in Bali, Indonesia, this December. The task is to coax emissions pledges from big developing countries that are becoming major polluters in their own right.
China -- the world’s No. 2 emitter -- and India have rejected any idea that they be locked into binding targets, which at present only apply to rich countries. To do so, they argue and will hamper their rise from poverty.
Just as important for post-2012 Kyoto will be to cajole the United States back into the international club. Unless Bush has a change of heart, the best hope will be a bridge between Kyoto members and the United States, for instance in linked programmes that help the carbon cleanup.
Bush under pressure: Al Gore’s climate docu-movie, legal and regulatory moves on carbon pollution by California and northeastern US states, last year’s Democratic victory in Congress: all add to pressure on a president already weakened by Iraq.
Last week, facing a drubbing at the G8, Bush took to the offensive with his own climate plan. The United States and up to 14 other big emitters would agree by the end of next year “a long-term global goal” for reducing greenhouse gases.
Critics say Bush’s plan lacks key details, such as the scale and speed of the cuts and the essential component of mandatory caps is absent. Bush has not spelt out whether his plan is intended to be a substitute for Kyoto or the hoped-for link to it.
But green groups see a wily ploy. They say Bush first seeks to defuse the political bomb waiting for him at Heiligendamm and ultimately destroy the Kyoto process through delay and confusion.
“Bush’s idea of initiating new, parallel talks between just a few countries is nothing but an effort to derail the ongoing talks” in the UN framework, said Saleemul Huq, head of climate change at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIEED) in London.