The New Green Leaders

With less than a year left in office, President George W. Bush will probably never win the Greenpeace seal of approval. He is, after all, the leader who, in one of his first official acts back in 2001, rejected the Kyoto Protocol, keeping the United States from participating in the effort to curb carbon emissions. He also told a skeptical Congress that opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling was essential to national security. Lately, however, Bush is turning … well, if not green, then at least lime or chartreuse. In mid-April he announced that the United States would be willing to commit to binding emissions targets. He has also signed into law the first increase in auto-efficiency requirements in three decades and embraced alternative fuels. What is behind Bush's late-term epiphany about the environment?

The answer: public opinion. The state of the environment has begun to loom large in the minds of Americans. In 2007, the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that 37 percent of Americans named environmental problems as a top global threat, a 61 percent increase from just five years earlier. Sensing this groundswell of environmentalism, Bush knows that he risks being labeled in history books as the last major leader to ignore the environmental perils facing the world. The two Democratic candidates for Bush's job, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, as well as the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain, have all come out in favor of ambitious plans to roll back climate change, including a cap-and-trade program to cut carbon emissions.

The green tilt can be felt not only in the United States. The Pew survey included 46 other nations, and in all but three the environment had swelled in importance between 2002 and 2007. (The laggards were Jordan, Lebanon and the Ivory Coast.) Between 45 and 66 percent of Western Europeans named environmental issues as a top threat last year, as did 70 percent of Chinese. People in India, Brazil and other large developing nations also felt strongly. Chalk it up to the blizzard of doomsday predictions from scientists or Al Gore's PR blitz—either way, it equates to a rising global demand for environmentally sound leaders, and a public that will give them unprecedented support for tackling the thorny problems facing the planet. It should also give fresh impetus to climate talks now underway for a post-Kyoto agreement, which this time around is likely to include China and India.

Leaders that truly want to prove their green worth would do well to look north. In Iceland, a country better known for cod than clean technology, an amazing 80 percent of energy comes from renewable sources like hydroelectric and geothermal power plants. That achievement has been decades in the making—Iceland has long tapped its rivers and volcanoes for electricity. Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde now wants to export his country's success in alternative energy. With government backing, Icelandic companies are taking their expertise in renewables to places as diverse as Djibouti, China and southern California. Although Iceland, with its geothermal reserves and tiny population, may be in a unique position, other heads of state might find an idea or two by looking to Reykjavik.

Still, getting citizens to sacrifice income for the environment's sake will be easier in Stockholm than in Tokyo and London. Although Western Europe and Japan have been far ahead of the rest of the world on the environment, old-fashioned politics still temper the greenest rhetoric. Many of the measures environmentalists are calling for and politicians give lip service to are meeting stiff resistance from lobbyists and entrenched bureaucrats. Whereas Britain's Tony Blair made the environment his calling card, and Angela Merkel has initiated climate-change measures in Germany and the European Union, both Merkel and Blair's successor, Gordon Brown, are struggling to implement their green agendas. Brown has taken flak for his support of coal-fired plants and a new runway at Heathrow airport. Merkel has been reluctant to confront Germany's coal, steel and cement industries over carbon emissions. Nicolas Sarkozy has tried to make himself out to be France's green president, but he's lately run into trouble with environmentalists over genetically modified foods. And Japan's Yasuo Fukuda has made the environment a high priority—it will be on the agenda of the G8 summit in July, which Japan is hosting—though he's been in office too short a time to accomplish much.

The appetite for change is more evident elsewhere, especially in Asia. Australia's recent presidential election highlights the shift in political climate. The vanquished John Howard—the country's second longest-serving prime minister—was famously friendly to industry, defended his country's domestic coal businesses and denounced carbon trading as a "knee-jerk reaction" to global warming. His rival, Labor Party candidate Kevin Rudd, was better tuned to the Zeitgeist: after stumping on the pledge to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, he won by a margin so large the media dubbed it a "Ruddslide."

South Korea's new president, Lee Myung-bak, is also widely expected to make the environment a top concern of his administration. Lee was born into poverty, rose to the top of Hyundai, the country's largest conglomerate, and presided over Korea's headlong rush to industrialize, a time in which it quickly became a world leader in steel, petrochemicals and other heavy industry. Yet as a politician, it was Lee's efforts to green Seoul during his stint as mayor from 2002 to 2006 that brought him to national prominence. (His signature achievement: a campaign to clean a fetid waterway that had been buried beneath a concrete highway system in the 1970s.) Koreans share these priorities: a recent poll reported that 53 percent think environmental protection is more important than development.

Many Asian leaders, like Lee, still have one foot in the old world where economic growth was the measure of everything. That's especially true in China. By any measure, China's ecosystems are severely stressed, but President Hu Jintao has given signs that he understands how degraded China's environment has become, and that further damage could hobble the economy and trigger social unrest. He has unveiled ambitious policies to promote energy efficiency, created a "circular economy" based on sustainability and recycling, and begun to enact a climate-change policy "that is ahead of many other countries," argues Christine Loh, founder of the influential Hong Kong think tank Civic Exchange.

In rapidly industrializing nations like China, it is local pollution that drives environmentalism, but savvy leaders will need to harness that sentiment to make progress on the No. 1 international environmental issue: climate change. "Climate change is by far the biggest environmental issue of our time, and indeed of any time," says John Holdren, the director of the Science, Technology & Public Policy program at Harvard's Kennedy School. In the past, developing countries dragged their feet on this issue, arguing—not unreasonably—that climate change is a legacy of the West's industrialization, and that they must focus on economic development above all else. But at the Bali climate talks last year, "that really substantially turned around," Holdren says, largely because the effects of climate change are already being felt in the developing world in the form of droughts, storms and melting glaciers. "They're now saying, 'We understand that climate change is already harming us, and that a solution will have to include us'."

Rolling back climate change is a challenge that will test the resolve of today's green heads of state, who are less hard-core environmentalists than realists responding to new political truths. Rudd, for instance, supports logging in his country's old-growth forests—hardly a Greenpeace action item. China's leaders plan to install 30 gigawatts of wind power by 2020, but in 2006 added 90 gigawatts more of new coal-fired plants. That kind of dichotomy is likely to be a hallmark of the Age of Green. Just ask George Bush.