Getting any kind of G8 deal on climate change has been quite an achievement, based on conversations with people on the ground in Germany. And having the United States make the right noises is a true development. Fiona Harvey, in her new FT blog that will examine energy and environmental issues, sensed a shift yesterday.
"We have to wait and see what happens in Bali in December before we can make a final judgement. But progress it certainly is. George W Bush has repeatedly scorned the UN and its climate change talks in the past. This time, he says he wants the US to be “actively involved, if not taking the lead, in a post-Kyoto framework, post-Kyoto agreement".
Of course, that could also mean the US wants to participate in order to stall agreement on a binding commitment to cut emissions, as some green groups suspect.
But even if that is the case, it still means the talks can start this year. In 2009, there will be a different president who may take the US participation in a different direction. At least the process will have begun, rather than having to be started from scratch by a new president in 2009."
We spend a lot of time trying to sense whether America really is changing its attitudes towards climate change and the ways action can be taken. And while Bush's policy making is one thing, it's what the doers on the ground are up to that counts for the long term.
America's renewed lust for the environment goes much wider than the Silicon Valley clean boom. For example, an amazing number of people you talk to in the US are now very interested in finding ways to reduce their dependency on oil, for starters. And they won't sacrifice mobility to do it. I call the latter the 'Dante's Peak' trait - a hard-wired desire to have the immediate ability at any time to put your entire family into a truck that can speed you away from exploding volcanos, or whatever else might come along. Such traits just aren't part of the European psyche, and this difference needs to be understood. Conversely, European angst over aviation emissions, a constant and major factor here, is just not on the US radar. Americans in the street can't believe Europeans worry about aircraft emissions being a bad thing. In a vast country with completely different patterns of population density and transport infrastructure to Europe it seems hard to imagine Americans starting to wonder whether they ought to fly. Hell, they didn't transform the world with 707s and DC-8s, only to give up the mass-scale, iconic marvel and convenience of jet travel.Dante's Peak: Would Pierce have got everyone out in a Prius?
The contradiction is that while we are all shocked that Bush is now facing into the environmental wind - and that the detail on what this means for citizens is bound to differ between continents - today in the United States there are examples of extraordinary state or city-level leadership on the environment, with things moving very fast. City mayors and governors far away from the Arnie-induced Californian green-boom are developing exciting policies. Take Austin in, of all places Texas. It's becoming one of the US's top hotspots for environmental startups. Americans understand that new markets create new energy, if you excuse the irony - energetic campuses, energetic startup firms, flows of venture funds and more.
The challenge for Europe is whether America's emerging interest will incite Europe to kick straight back up to the top of the game it led during parts of the 1990s. Germany has an incredible number of companies investing in solar technology, for example. The auto industry in Europe knows exactly how to produce safe but very efficient cars (that consumers actually like), while America cranks out vehicles that either ape (or in fact are) trucks (that consumers actually like). Holland has proved bikes work brilliantly as local transport for every class of citizen, while the developing world stuffs itself with traffic jams. An Austrian lady in her mid twenties was telling me the other day how odd she finds the sudden interest in the UK in recycling. "We were all taught at school to think about how we live and what our impact is on the environment. I've recycled for years."
At the same time, how public bodies in Europe work with innovative firms could be a problem. In California there is a great deal of interaction between social entrepreneurs and public leaders keen to achieve results. Santa Monica in Los Angeles has been a pioneer here, with events such as its AltCar Expo and some cool projects to change how people move around the city. The situation here is different. We spoke with one green entrepreneur trying to do the same kind of work in London who told us the city's public cycling policy team were far less than helpful. In our experience, British local councils rarely know how to deal with entrepreneurs. They draw up specifications and ask companies to bid. That's a great way to get what you think you want, not what the best people, with the best ideas, can deliver.
And the trouble is that we need to be deploying, from today, our very best people. And they need to be helping everyone else adopt, right away, the very best in current ideas and approaches. I mean right now. Yes, today. Meanwhile we need to be working hard to find things that will be even better, to deploy in a few years time.
The move by the G8 is a little like promising to be faithful to the wife after an affair but saying you'd better ditch the mistress over a couple of years. Everyone knows that's a bad idea. Unless you don't really mean it. But whether those at the top do or not, there are plenty on the ground who do.