To show he meant business, Mr. Bush designated his treasury secretary to talk to other nations about getting worldwide contributions to a new global warming fund, the money from which would pay for clean-energy projects in poor countries.
"This here was a great step for the Americans and a small step for mankind," Germany's environment minister, Sigmar Gabriel, said after Mr. Bush's speech at the State Department before representatives of the nations that are the world's biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. "In substance, we are still far apart."
In his speech, Mr. Bush acknowledged that climate change is real and that human activity is a factor. But the president still held to voluntary goals, not mandatory targets, to achieving a reduction in greenhouse gases, said CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller.
"By setting this goal, we acknowledge there is a problem; and by setting this goal, we commit ourselves to doing something about it," Mr. Bush said. "We share a common responsibility: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while keeping our economies growing."
The president's speech capped two days of talks at a White House-sponsored climate conference that brought United States together with developing nations such as China, India and Brazil that are not required to make cuts under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the U.N. treaty for reducing greenhouse gases, which expires in 2012. Mr. Bush rejected the protocol shortly after he became president in 2001.
Most of the private talk at the White House conference focused on Japan's proposal that nations agree to cut global emissions by half their current levels by 2050, said the president's top environmental adviser, James Connaughton. A Japanese statement to other conference members called that proposal "a vision and not a legally-binding target."
The conference included representatives of other major industrial nations, such as Russia, Britain, France and Germany, who have signed on to the Kyoto treaty that Mr. Bush rejected because he said it would harm the U.S. economy and did not require immediate cuts of countries like China and India. The treaty aimed to put the biggest burden on the richest nations that contribute the most carbon emissions.
Other participants in Washington came from Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico, South Africa and South Korea, plus the European Union and the United Nations. Iran, another of the biggest emitters, notably was excluded.
Mr. Bush said his purpose was to begin setting a new worldwide goal for cutting carbon dioxide emissions after 2012 and to help developing nations pay for the changes that would be needed. The president said the reduction goal should be finished by next summer, along with ways to measure progress toward it.
He said each nation should establish for itself what methods it will use to rein in the pollution problem without stunting economic growth.
He still refuses to sign on to mandatory emission-reduction obligations, preferring to encourage the development of new technologies and other voluntary measures, and will not participate in any talks toward a global agreement that do not include energy guzzlers from the developing world.
Mr. Bush made clear, however, that he saw his talks as complementary to the U.N. negotiations over what will succeed the Kyoto treaty after 2012. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon held a summit Monday at the United Nations to grease the wheels for an agreement in December in Bali, Indonesia. Mr. Bush has seemed more sensitive lately to perceptions in other parts of the world that the U.S. government either does not take the phenomenon of global warming seriously, or seriously enough.
It may be too little, too late.
John Ashton, a special representative on climate change for the British foreign secretary, said: "One of the striking features of this meeting is how isolated this administration has become. There is absolutely no support that I can see in the international community that we can drive this effort on the basis of voluntary efforts."
A more scathing assessment was offered by an anonymous European diplomat attending the conference, who told The Guardian that the meeting merely confirmed European suspicions that Mr. Bush was trying to scuttle upcoming climate talks in Bali.
"It was a total charade and has been exposed as a charade," the diplomat was quoted in The Guardian. "I have never heard a more humiliating speech by a major leader. He [Mr Bush] was trying to present himself as a leader while showing no sign of leadership. It was a total failure."
C. Boyden Gray, the U.S. ambassador to the E.U., strongly disagreed with European anger.
"It's been a little uphill because of skepticism in Europe," he said. "On the one hand they say you are undermining Bali, and on the other hand they say you are not doing anything at all."
In Mr. Bush's speech, the presidfent credited the world's 439 nuclear power plants with keeping greenhouse gas emissions below what they would have been had nuclear energy not been pursued. He promoted the idea of expanding nuclear energy, prompting an annoyed rebuttal by the German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel.
"I don't [think] it's particularly clever to give the world the message: build new nuclear plants," Gabriel said. "First you urge people to expand nuclear energy and then you send in NATO to bomb the nuclear power plants because they did the wrong thing - that isn't particularly intelligent politics."
Non-governmental organizations who have been pushing the U.S. to do more to fight global warming were not much impressed, either.
"Instead of talking about real actions to reduce emissions, the White House set up a discussion about working groups and debating schedules," said Philip Clapp, President of the National Environmental Trust. "There is not one substantive emissions reduction proposal on the table. Other countries were suspicious at the beginning of the meeting, and most now aren't taking any of this seriously."
The ball is now in Congress' court, said Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense, who was among the few outsiders to address the panel of mostly midlevel government ministers.
"Congress needs to lead. The president is not giving us the leadership we need. Ultimately what we need are mandatory caps," Krupp said. "No air pollution problem in the world has ever been solved without having legal limits."
Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Jeff Bingaman, who chair committees in the Senate, said they would provide that leadership and work toward legislation with mandatory carbon controls and a cap-and-trade system.
Boxer called Mr. Bush's speech an improvement on what he has said about climate change in the past, "but unless it is followed up with mandatory cuts in global-warming pollution, it will amount to little more than empty words."
At the same time, the fact that the United States was taking a role in the process, and a leading one, was heartening to some.
Yvo de Boer, the top U.N. climate official, said he found Mr. Bush's speech "encouraging because it indicates that the U.S. wants to develop this discussion among the major economies, get into the substance, including on the question of goals and the type of regime that's appropriate, and then feed that into the larger U.N. process."
Until recently, said Emil Salim, an economist and member of the Indonesian president's council of advisers, Bush offered "no dialogue on the Kyoto Protocol whatsoever. This time, the members of the Kyoto Protocol are invited to discuss. So from that point of view, there is some improvement," he said in an interview.
"But on the other hand, I think it has more to do with the domestic politics, because you have election."
The Associate Press' John Heilprin and Desmond Butler contributed to this report.