US at the Bali Climate Change Conference The American Gap between Words and Deeds

It sounds good -- at first. The US says it wants to be part of a climate treaty and looks forward to a new chapter in climate policy. But a closer look reveals that Washington continues to torpedo any concrete agreement.

By and in Bali, Indonesia and San Francisco

When it comes to climate change, America's image in the world is hardly the best. Wherever countries are trying to limit emissions of greenhouse gases, the US -- and especially the administration of President George W. Bush -- is seen as a dangerous spoil-sport, doing what it can to torpedo far-reaching climate agreements.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned on Wednesday that failure to come up with a climate agreement would result in "oblivion."

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned on Wednesday that failure to come up with a climate agreement would result in "oblivion."

It is a role, recent US statements lead one to hope, the country may be tired of playing. The climate change conference currently being held on the Indonesian island of Bali is the beginning of a process to find an international climate change agreement to succeed the soon-to-expire Kyoto Protocol. American diplomats there have been doing their best to sound as though the US wants to be part of the solution.

"The IPCC has made it clear that climate change is a serious challenge," Paula Dobriansky, US undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs and head of the US delegation at Bali, told reporters on Wednesday. "We have to respond to that challenge and open a new chapter of climate diplomacy." She wants that chapter to be opened right away, she said.

Dobriansky wasn't finished. She said it was vital for the international community to come up with a "roadmap" for negotiations, eventually leading to a climate treaty ready for signing at the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen. The new agreement, she continued, should be both environmentally and economically effective. "We want the world's largest economies, including the United States, to be part of the global arrangement," she said.

'National Commitments'

Not to be outdone, James Connaughton, senior environmental advisor to President Bush, insists that the US wants "national commitments" for those countries responsible for the most greenhouse gas emissions. The US is on top of that list, with China coming in a close second.

But for all the talk, the US position at Bali continues to be that of an impassable barricade on the road to an international strategy to tackle climate change. "National commitments," as the US insists, should remain voluntary, and the negotiators from America have continuously rejected any verbiage that even hints at mandatory climate reduction goals, as the European Union wants.

Indeed, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday said that specific guidelines on emissions cuts might have to wait for subsequent negotiating sessions. "Realistically, it may be too ambitious," to try and impose concrete emissions reduction goals now. "Practically speaking, this will have to be negotiated down the road."

Just what those negotiations might look like is difficult to say. The EU continues to insist on stringent targets necessary, EU negotiators say, to avoid a more than 2 degree Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit) rise in the Earth's average temperature, relative to pre-industrial levels. Bush prefers that industry commit itself to voluntary goals.

'I Hope That Will Change'

Former US Vice President Al Gore, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last weekend for his work on climate change, accused his country of trying to block a climate agreement. "The position of the administration in the US right now appears to be to try to block any progress in Bali. I hope that will change," Gore said.

Indeed, there are few who still believe that the Bali conference will result in a commitment to concrete emissions reductions. Even the term "binding targets" has become a no-no among those directing the negotiations. In deference to the US position, the term "quantifiable targets" is now being favored. But Washington has indicated its discomfort even with that formulation. Numbers, the US negotiating team has made clear, are an anathema; head US negotiator Harlan Watson said: "Once numbers appear in the text, it predetermines outcomes and it can really drive negotiations in one direction."

Should one want a slightly clearer enunciation of what, exactly, the Bush administration's position is on global warming, one only has to look across the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco. There, the American Geophyisical Union is meeting this week, and the 15,000 scientists gathered there are discussing climate change. On Monday, John Marburger, chief science advisor to the American president, spoke to the conference, in a talk entitled "Reflections on the Science and Policy of Energy and Climate Change."

"It is difficult these days to speak reasonably about climate change," he said. It doesn't make any sense, he went on, to force growing economies like those of China or India to accept emissions limits. "They want to improve their lives," he said. He also explained why the US couldn't drastically reduce its CO2 emissions: "The costs are very high. We can't just ignore economic competition."

'Too Ambitious'

Ban Ki-moon, it would seem from his comments on Wednesday, has been listening. He said that Bali would be considered a success if a time-line for subsequent negotiations -- with the goal of an agreement by 2009 -- could be agreed upon. But he also issued a clear warning: "We are at a crossroad," he said to the delegates from over 180 nations. "One path leads to a comprehensive climate change agreement, the other to oblivion. The choice is clear." He also, though, said that the European goal of binding rich nations to cut emissions by 25 to 40 percent relative to 1990 levels was "too ambitious."

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, at the Bali conference since Tuesday, likewise said that the goal of this month's conference is not the formulation of concrete goals. There will, after all, be subsequent negotiations. But, he said, it is also unacceptable to end the conference with no agreements at all. "I don't need a paper from Bali that says we will just meet again next year," he said. "If you want to go a long way, you need to know the starting point and where you want to go."

In order to help find that starting point, the Indonesian hosts of the conference have suggested bringing together a smaller group of ministers to negotiate the fine points. Five members will be representing the EU in the smaller assembly: Gabriel from Germany, his counterparts from Portugal (as current holder of the rotating EU presidency) and Slovenia (as the next EU president), the EU Commission and, as host of the Copenhagen Conference in 2009, Denmark.

Whether this move will ultimately succeed in getting the US along with China and India -- as the most important developing countries -- remains to be seen. As does an indication as to how committed the US is to it's rhetoric of wanting to be part of a climate agreement. For the moment, however, it continues to look as though the White House would have to make a 180 degree change of course. This Wednesday, Democrats in Congress released a report accusing the White House of having manipulated climate science for years.

"The Bush administration has engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming," the report, from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said. James Connaughton was fingered as one of those responsible.


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