The recently-concluded summit of the Group of 8, which was once, but no longer is, a gathering of the world's major economic powers, was strange from nearly any perspective. Only six countries were present at the opening dinner. The Presidents of the United States and Russia got into a dispute about proposed U.S. deployment of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. The President of the U.S. missed some sessions because of illness, but his government was always there, making agreement on some key matters very difficult.
Most disappointing—former Vice President Al Gore called it a "disgrace"—was the agreement on climate change. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's original proposal, which sought a cut of 50% in carbon emissions from G8 members, disappeared early on because of the Bush Administration's aversion to specific numbers, government regulations, and agreements that might inconvenience U.S. industry. In the end, the group's members agreed to pursue "substantial" reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, a wording that is far too vague to be effective but was the best available, given U.S. intransigence.
The Bush White House sought to portray the G8 climate agreement as a major step forward, but it is not. Even the original proposal would have been less than needed, but it would at least have placed real requirements on the G8 members. "Substantial reduction" is not 50 percent reduction; it is whatever each government wants it to be. A U.S. Administration which up until recently denied that climate change was an issue at all is unlikely to seek major reductions in carbon emissions.
Reality, however, may catch up with the Bush Administration and the Group of Eight very quickly. On the economic front, the Group of Eight omits the world's fourth largest economy, China, and even a strong G8 declaration might not influence Chinese policy. On the climate front, the evidence is mounting that major change has to happen soon, regardless of the current U.S. government's preferences. States like California, whose economy is among the largest in the world, have already recognized this and begun to take action without waiting for the Federal Government.
The politics of the G8 will, in any case, change with a change in U.S. Administrations. Whether the change will be enough to make a difference is still an open question.