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Published: Monday, 7/14/2008

Belated move on warming

IT'S amazing what can happen when the thoughts of an outgoing president turn to his legacy.

With six months left in his administration, President Bush finally has agreed to join other industrialized countries in setting a goal to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel global warming.

The G-8 member nations - the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Canada, Japan, and Russia - agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2050.

That is certainly good in theory, but the deadline is too distant, no numerical targets were agreed to, and no starting point was specified. Still, it was commendable that, at Mr. Bush's urging, the developed nations expanded their talks to include the emerging economies of China, India, and six other nations.

As president, Mr. Bush has been resistant to the growing body of evidence of climate change, moving as if through stages of grief from denial to grudging acceptance. Now he offers what he calls "significant progress" after G-8 leaders meeting in Japan pledged to meet some benchmarks.

The significance of this progress will be debated. Mr. Bush has at least faced up to the fact of global warming and pressed for concerted international action in a way that goes beyond past lip service. The immediate significance of his action was that it defied his core constituency - that legion of unscientific pundits and talk-show listeners who remain convinced that man-made climate change is a hoax and science be damned.

Fortunately, most Americans are smarter than that, understanding that we cannot go on fouling our own nest, the Earth, without inviting calamity and that sensible steps taken now may forestall drastic measures later.

For Mr. Bush, this growing political consensus leaves him exposed to the judgment of history. And history may not be impressed by the postscript he now adds to his general record of underachievement.

At the same time, the attitude of the developing nations is problematic. These nations, which came last to the industrialization party, do not believe that sacrifices in combating global warming should fall equally on them when they were not the main culprits in causing the problem. Like so much else the Bush Administration leaves behind, the difficult challenge of sorting this out will fall to a new president.

While Mr. Bush has done the right thing at last, the fact remains that the past eight years saw the squandering of a great window of opportunity to do something about a global problem.

This late window dressing may not be enough to redeem the Bush legacy, but it may eventually help save the planet.

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