In recent official statements, Washington has indicated it might be looking for a compromise during negotiations in Bali for a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. But sources say the White House is discreetly searching for partners in Beijing and Dehli to derail the prospects for any binding agreements to curb emissions of greenhouse gases.
In the run-up to the Bali Climate Conference that opened Monday, the administration of US President George W. Bush established contact with representatives of the Chinese and Indian governments in an attempt to curb progress on climate protection initiatives, SPIEGEL ONLINE has learned from a source familiar with the White House's Bali strategy.
According to the source, Washington is hoping that the two greenhouse gas emitters will openly declare during the conference that they are unwilling to accept any binding limits on emissions of greenhouse gases -- at least not as long as the US is unwilling to do more or if the Western industrial nations do not provide them with more financial aid for climate protection initiatives. If successful, the US could use the tactic to prevent itself from becoming an isolated scapegoat if negotiations in Bali end in a stalemate.
"Bush's people don't want to make any real progress in the next two weeks," one Washington insider said. "But they also don't want to be severely criticized internationally again. So now the White House is seeking discreet ways of preventing binding limits on emissions."
Indirect teamwork with China and India appears to be regarded as one such way -- and Americans apparently feel it is essential. One problem is that the US can no longer count on one of its closest allies in its refusal to adopt more rigid climate protection rules: The first official act of Australia's new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd when he entered office Monday was to sign the Kyoto Protocol. He wants to try to ratify it in parliament later this week.
The strategy talks with China and India, though, are a glaring contradiction to the official statements coming from the US delegation before the start of the world climate conference. Just last week, Paula Dobriansky, undersecretary of state and the chief US representative in Bali, said week: "We'd like to see consensus on the launch of negotiations. We want to see a Bali roadmap."
But in Washington, people have been saying for days that this is just a diversionary tactic, and the government definitely wants to prevent clear agreements on pollutant limits. President Bush, too, sounded cautious last Wednesday in his comments on the climate. "We must lead the world to produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions," he said, before adding, "We must do it in a way that does not undermine economic growth or prevent nations from delivering greater prosperity for their people."
The Bush administration has so far always refused to accept binding rules on reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. They rejected the Kyoto Protocol, which established limits for emissions. The US has also regularly tried to obstruct the UN negotiations over a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.
Hence the climate conference in September in Washington, to which Bush invited key industrialized countries, was regarded by the majority of climate experts as an attempt to devalue the Bali meeting. There was hardly any talk of concrete agreements. It's true that the White House no longer openly denies the facts of global warming. But it still calls for voluntary technical guidelines that will not put a burden on the economy, and suggests that technological innovations can solve the pollution problem.
With its effort to reach an agreement with China and India, Washington is now seeking to ensure that even in Bali the principle of voluntary guidelines will not be shaken. It is not clear, however, whether this strategy will work out. In the run-up to the conference, China had already reiterated its stance that the United States and the West must act first, and rejected mandatory limits of greenhouse gas emissions. However, the Chinese also held a meeting with senior representatives of the United States Congress in September -- bypassing the White House.
The main message the Chinese took away from that discussion was that the power center in Washington regarding climate issues had shifted to Congress, and that Congress would soon decide on stringent emissions limits. Such a move would also increase pressure on Beijing to accept stricter measures -- meaning that the Chinese delegation might already be willing to negotiate in Bali.
In fact, despite the blockade attempts by the White House, a change of heart is taking place in the US. It's possible that a Congressional committee could start discussing an ambitious climate change proposal by Senators Joseph Lieberman and John Warner as early as this week. The bill proposes that US emissions of greenhouse gases be reduced by 15 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2020. In addition, a trading system for emissions similar to the European model could be created.
"Ten years after the rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, that would be a real breakthrough," said Peter Goldmark, a former president of the Rockefeller Foundation who is now head of the Climate and Air program at the influential environmental organization Environmental Defense.
Last Friday, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi (a Democrat), pushed through new restrictions on auto emissions. If the bill becomes law, American car manufacturers will have to improve the efficiency of engines in cars and small trucks by 40 percent before 2020.
On a regional level, the US is changing fast. The governors of California, Utah and Montana have just started a TV campaign to demand new measures against climate change. "In state after state, we're taking action," say the governors. "Now it's time for Congress to act by capping greenhouse gas pollution."
"Now it's their turn," says Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Nine governors from the Midwest recently signed an agreement to reduce greenhouse gases in their respective states and to introduce an emissions trading system.
Before the Bali conference, there was a sensation in Washington over a report produced by the consulting agency McKinsey in cooperation with some environmental organizations. The consultants estimated that Americans could curb their greenhouse gas emissions with small technological innovations and moderate financial investment by a staggering 28 percent. But the report wasn't a work of pure fiction: The amount of CO2 emitted per person in the United States is estimated to be twice as high as the same figure in the UK or Germany.
Peter Goldmark thinks political support exists for a sea change in US climate policy. "All our studies show that people understand that if you start now, the impact (on the economy and the so-called American way of life) will be minimal. If you wait too long, it will have a tremendous impact."