LONDON — Do not be downhearted about the outcome of the Bali talks. They did not deliver the binding commitments to cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that are desperately needed, and as a result millions may die who might have lived. But they did show us something remarkable. They showed us the human race trying to grow up and take responsibility for its common future.
It doesn’t feel like that, of course. It feels like 15,000 politicians, diplomats, journalists and activists flew across continents in order to sit in Bali for two weeks and achieve very little. Disappointment and even anger are not out of order, for the commitment to early and deep emission cuts (25 to 40 percent by 2020) that most developed countries wanted to see in the draft treaty had to be dropped in order to keep the United States involved at all.
The Bush administration no longer denies that climate change is a problem, but it is still determined to kill any international deal that involves concrete and legally binding targets. The U.S. produces about a quarter of the world’s emissions, so no deal that excludes it would work.
Moreover, the developing countries where emissions are growing fastest, particularly China and India, will never accept obligations of their own while the U.S. accepts none. So the American delegation had to be kept on board no matter how obstructive it was.
It was amazingly obstructive. There must be no targets, there must be no timetables, there must be no numbers at all in the “road map” that the conference was drawing up for the next two years of negotiations on a successor to the Kyoto treaty, insisted chief U.S. negotiator Harlan Watson. Why not? Because “once numbers appear in the text, it prejudges the outcome and will tend to drive the negotiations in one direction.”
Yes, and if everybody’s shared goal is to cut emissions and avoid catastrophic climate change, what’s wrong with that?
The U.S. was almost completely isolated at the Bali talks. Its only two allies among the developed countries were Canada and Japan, both of which promised modest emission cuts under the Kyoto accord 10 years ago but then allowed their emissions to soar. And the danger was that the frustration and fury of all the other delegations, in the hothouse atmosphere of a two-week conference, would lure them into a pointless and destructive confrontation with the U.S.
It was former U.S. Vice President Al Gore who saved the day with a speech in which he urged the conference to be patient. “My own country, the United States, is mainly responsible for obstructing progress at Bali,” he admitted, but “over the next two years the United States is going to be somewhere it is not now. . . . One year and forty days from today there will be a new (presidential) inauguration in the United States.”
“If you decide to continue the progress that has been made here on all the items other than the targets and timetables for mandatory reductions, on the hope and with the expectation that, before this process is concluded . . . you will be able to fill in that blank (with the help of a different position from the U.S.), then you can make great progress here.” (Read: President George W. Bush will soon be gone. Even though time is short, you have to wait him out.)
The conference took Gore’s advice and removed the numbers from the text. Even then, astonishingly, the U.S. delegation declared that it could not support the revised text — and a chorus of boos rang out in the crowded conference hall. A delegate from Papua New Guinea stood up and told the U.S. delegation: “If you’re not willing to lead, please get out of the way.”
After a short huddle, the U.S. delegation announced that it would support the revised text after all.
So don’t believe the cynics who say that public opinion does not matter. A large majority of Americans are far ahead of their government in their desire to see effective action on climate change, and the Bush administration is fighting a delaying action. With both world opinion and American public opinion solidly against it, it suddenly became clear to the U.S. delegation that this line of trenches had to be abandoned fast.
So there is a “road map” for the next two years of negotiations, although it has no hard numbers in it. Low-level meetings will continue over the next year, but the next big conference, scheduled for Poland next December, will probably be allowed to slip by a couple of months so that the new U.S. administration is in office. And then, hopefully, they can put the numbers back in.
There is no guarantee that the emissions cuts they finally agree in 2009 will be big enough, or that everybody will meet their commitments. Runaway global warming is a serious possibility, in which case we may be facing megadeaths by mid-century. But Bali was not a futile or a shameful exercise.
It was 6 billion people in 180 separate countries trying to cope with a shared danger in a cooperative way. It was actually quite inspiring, and even 50 years ago it would have been inconceivable.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.