The G8 summit in Germany this week brought new rhetoric from the United States about climate change. President Bush seemed to signal a willingness to cooperate with international partners, after nearly a decade of ignoring international agreements like the Kyoto Protocol. Andrew Revkin, environment reporter for The New York Times, looks at how Bush has warmed to a new approach and the unlikely influence of an old Bush nemesis, Al Gore.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is away this week. I'm Bob Garfield. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Some consensus on climate change. Eight world leaders agreed to a centerpiece of the G8 Summit and - PRESIDENT BUSH: At the end of next year, America and other nations will set a long-term global goal for reducing greenhouse gasses. MALE ANNOUNCER: Mr. Bush could lose further than he ever has in agreeing to a, quote, "substantial cut."
BOB GARFIELD: This week's G8 Summit in Germany provided a rare face-to-face discussion among the world's economic powers on the problem of climate change. It also provided a notable change in rhetoric from President Bush, who advanced a plan that, while not exactly embracing absolute targets, would commit the United States to reducing carbon emissions.
Why the about-face from the man who has turned his back on global partnerships like the Kyoto Agreement? One hint came from recently inaugurated French President , who, before he left for Germany, consulted on climate issues with former Vice President Al Gore.
Could it be that President Bush has been backed into a political corner, with the help of Gore's book and movie about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth? If the President has been forced by public opinion to show leadership on climate change, how much credit goes to an atmosphere-hugging documentary for putting him there?
We asked Andrew Revkin, longtime environment reporter for The New York Times. Andrew, welcome back to the show. ANDREW REVKIN: It's always a pleasure. BOB GARFIELD: Before we get started on this week's events, I want to call your attention to a piece you did in 2001, after it became apparent that the White House was of no mind to sign on to the Kyoto Protocols. It said that the administration is unlikely to do anything. Whether it acts, quote, "depends on domestic political pressure." Was it, in fact, domestic political pressure that motivated the President to make this turnaround? ANDREW REVKIN: As I wrote in 2001, you know, clearly they bet on inertia, and now they're basically being pushed to act by the political imperative. That was not there for six years. There was a preference to stick with the status quo as long as the American people chose to stick with the status quo.
When I wrote about the last round of U.N. climate science reports back in 2000, 2001, the stories were buried inside the paper. And this time they were all lead stories.
The pattern is that for six years the American people largely showed indifference on the climate question, and suddenly now, the last year or two, there's been this burst of focus on it. BOB GARFIELD: Gee, and let's see - what happened in the last year or two? Well, there was a report on global climate change that showed a scientific consensus beyond any shadow of a doubt. There were continuing repercussions over the government's failures in the Katrina hurricane and its aftermath. And oh, that other thing - An Inconvenient Truth, the Al Gore book and documentary, which turned out to be something along the lines of a blockbuster, how important was it?
ANDREW REVKIN: Oh, I think it's hard to find a way to discount its importance. Not only did millions of people either buy the book or buy the DVD or see it in the theaters, but then it got a huge amount of extra coverage in the news weeklies on TV and on every talk show. So, one way or the other, it would be hard to find an American who wasn't at least vaguely aware of it.
Katrina happened, but I don't think it would have been linked as powerfully in the public imagination to human-caused climate change if the Gore movie hadn't followed. And having high oil prices at the same time helped to cement the idea that there's an energy problem underneath the climate problem.
So those things together all built to this crescendo. And then the Intergovernmental Panel findings this year, three different reports, each one just sort of was like a hammer pushing the nail in even further.
And that's left us now very little cover for the Bush administration, and lo and behold, here comes a fresh approach to policy. BOB GARFIELD: Now, you talk all the time to people in the administration. I'm curious whether you hear any Gore-related grumbling, not so much about his claims but about his effects. ANDREW REVKIN: Well, there's plenty of grumbling about his claims, still, for sure. And I haven't so much heard people say, gosh, I wish he hadn't amplified this into such an issue now. [LAUGHING]
In fact, I've heard recently, some people have said for the Bush administration - and this is just speculation - that there's some utility to making this a big issue now, because it distracts from Iraq; it gives the sense that they're actually consensus-building internationally instead of being polarizing. BOB GARFIELD: A convenient truth.
ANDREW REVKIN: [LAUGHS] BOB GARFIELD: Back in happier days for the White House, when the president had a lot more political capital to spend, he seemed, along with the rest of the Republican Party, to have been able to successfully frame the climate issue as a debate. ANDREW REVKIN: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE] BOB GARFIELD: Is it my imagination or, since at least the movie came out, that the bottom has fallen out of that argument that the Republicans, you know, scarcely even try to make it any more? ANDREW REVKIN: Oh, that argument is still very much alive and out there circulating. It's not so much making it into what you'd call the mainstream media, but it's very much out there for those who choose it.
And one of the most telling polls on this came out in January from the Pew Center on the Public and the Press. They really dug into what people believe and why on climate. And they found, for example, that among Republicans, those with a college degree were much more likely to be skeptical about human-caused global warming than Republicans without a college degree.
And they found that Democrats with a college degree were much more conclusively believing that humans were dangerously influencing climate than Democrats without.
People are in one camp or the other and new information or more education doesn't actually move you. It actually reinforces the camp that you're in. But that's not reflected so much in what - the average network show or even the average newspaper account now, I think, has much more accepted the idea that the old form of journalism, where you just have one person from each side state their views of the science, and that means you can go home having done your job, that's gone away.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Andrew, thank you so much for joining us. ANDREW REVKIN: It's my pleasure. BOB GARFIELD: Andrew Revkin is the environment reporter for The New York Times and author of The North Pole Was Here, which will come out in paperback this fall.