When I visited Bali 20 years ago, the beaches teemed with people offering any manner of products and services, and the most abundant seemed to be blowguns. Lying in the sand with your eyes closed, you could just hear, above the rhythmic lapping of the waves, the repeated murmur of “Blowgun? Blowgun? Blowgun?” What the connection with Bali was, I couldn’t make out, but I can’t help but think they could come very much in handy to defend your own patch of beach over the coming two weeks as 20,000 people descend on the tranquil isle for the U.N. negotiations on climate change.

Hopefully the meeting won’t descend into the kind of rancor that involves air-powered weaponry — unless you count speechifying and hot air, of which there is certain to be an abundance. But there should also be plenty of significant discussions, as this conference marks an important milestone in the process of deciding a successor to the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period, which ends in 2012.

Specifically, Bali could deliver a mandate or roadmap toward the U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009 (via Poznan, Poland, in 2008), where a deal on post-2012 policy is, pretty much all parties agree, meant to be finalized. Yes, Bali may still be “negotiating the negotiations,” but at least it’s better than “discussing the possibility of talking about negotiations,” which has been the operative mode of intergovernmental interaction on climate for the last five years or so.

The environmental NGO umbrella group Climate Action Network put out a pre-conference statement in which it was “quite clear in its demands for the next two weeks.” Item No. 1: “As part of the Kyoto Protocol track of the Bali Mandate, the expanded workplan of the Ad-Hoc Working Group (AWG) will need to include discussion of a number of important issues related to Annex I commitments post 2012.”

Yikes — you know you’re in trouble when even “clear NGO demands” require a glossary. But that’s the nature of the beast, and to be fair, if you’ve ever had trouble agreeing with your friends which video to rent and are reduced to a quivering mass of indecision and discord in front of wall after wall of perfectly good options, then try figuring out how to completely restructure energy use and major parts of the economy among almost 200 countries, many of which don’t even want to be in the room. It’s no wonder just getting in and out of this U.N. Blockbuster without throttling each other can seem like an accomplishment in itself.

To Rent, Perchance to Own

The Byzantine nature of the negotiations is due both to sheer technical complexity and to a need to accommodate so many positions. When discussions get too obvious, and winners and losers are plain to see, it’s dangerous to the process. But of course, no major decisions can be made without reaching such a point, and Bali is part of the process of erecting supporting structures and stringing safety nets for that moment when parties finally step out on a limb.

In Bali, there are three main tracks to the negotiations, which were launched at the U.N. climate meeting two years ago in Montreal. The first is the aforementioned Ad-Hoc Working Group, which is discussing future targets for developed country parties to Kyoto. But of course a lot of the controversy surrounds those countries that don’t have targets or are outside of Kyoto — namely the United States and large developing countries like China. These are included in the second process, which is a discussion under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the overarching agreement of which Kyoto is a spinoff, and to which even the U.S. is a party. This “dialogue on long-term cooperative action” has been light on details, but is as much as anything a means of keeping people talking rather than causing mischief, and it expires at Bali. The third track is a formal process mandated under Article 9 of the Protocol, which is a periodic review of its general adequacy — this was all but ignored when it arose the first time two years ago, but in theory offers a chance to structure a broad-ranging review of the process this time around.

However it is formally agreed, it is clear that there are some pretty basic issues that need to be addressed. These include:

Setting a long-term emissions reduction goal: The European Union wants to see global emissions reduced by 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, which is likely a minimum to achieve their goal of limiting global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius. Without some flesh on the bone of the general U.N. commitment to “avoid dangerous anthropogenic warming,” it will be hard to argue specific reduction levels at upcoming negotiations.

Deciding the next reduction targets among developed countries: A process decided in last-minute chaotic discussions in Kyoto, specific reduction targets could be set using some more coherent methodology for the next round, agreeing on overall reductions and an achievable plan to share the burden. However, the scale of needed cuts is daunting and could cause some governments to balk — 60 to 80 percent cuts by 2050 (in the context of a global 50 percent cut, meaning that developing countries have some more breathing room to reflect the fact that they start with much lower per capita emissions).

Finding a way to incorporate countries that do not currently have targets: This is perhaps the trickiest of all issues, because it is a catch-22: the U.S. has always said it will not take on targets without large developing countries like China and India doing the same, but these have said they will not take on targets until those responsible for most emissions, both historical and current, show success in cutting theirs first. The key may be to develop a stepwise approach toward targets that create confidence on both sides of the issue, rather than all-or-nothing posturing that is doomed to fail.

Restructuring the Clean Development Mechanism: This project-based crediting system was designed to allow developed countries to meet their targets more cost-effectively through emission-reduction projects in developing countries, while having benefits for the hosts. The problem is that it is proving difficult to separate out activities that would have happened anyway from those the CDM is actually causing to take place, such that a large percentage (as much as 40 percent according to the NGO WWF) may have been given credit for making no extra effort. The net result is a rise rather than a cut in emissions. Also problematic is the limited scale of the CDM — despite its rapid growth over the past two years, after a slow start, the CDM is only scratching the surface of the massive restructuring of energy supply and other sectors needed in the developing world. To make a larger contribution, the system will have to be made less unwieldy, broader, and more effective.

Addressing deforestation: Accounting for something like 20 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions, not to mention the myriad other environmental consequences, deforestation has been among the most difficult issues to address under the climate regime. While crediting for forest management and reforestation has been included for developed countries, project-based crediting for reforestation in developing countries has gotten off to a slow start due to concerns about how to account for them and guarantee permanent positive impact. But, most important, there is no mechanism to encourage avoiding deforestation in the first place, and while there are good reasons not to want to give people credit for not doing something, this is an obvious inconsistency.

Addressing adaptation to climate impacts: As the science shows the seriousness of inevitable impacts, not to mention those that could arise if we fail to curb additional warming, adaptation is rising on the agenda. However, there are some initial commitments made by developed countries to developing ones that have long been unmatched by appropriate plans and funding. Developing countries see this as a key element to their overall willingness to participate in a process that could lead to some of them eventually taking their own emission-reduction targets.

Tackling emissions from aviation and shipping: As they often occur in international airspace or waters, aviation and shipping emissions have fallen outside the scope of the protocol. But both are increasingly important sources of greenhouse gases that can’t be allowed to fall between the cracks. Among other things, parties like the E.U., which wants to include aviation emissions in its Emissions Trading Scheme, need to feel they are supported by the international community.

The Cheese Stands Alone

That an agreement in Copenhagen two years from now has been set as a goal not only by the European Union and other U.N.-friendly parties, but also the United States, is no mean feat. It may represent a considerable turnaround by the Bush administration, which has been a major sticking point in the whole U.N. climate process. It has not been at all clear that the U.S. would participate in or condone any U.N.-led agreement to follow on to the reviled Protocol, and a great deal of effort has been expended by pro-U.N. negotiators to ensure that result.

Perhaps the groundswell of popular feeling on climate change has just been too much to resist — in the past two and half years, there’s been an unprecedented shift of attention to the issue, with Hurricane Katrina, Al Gore, Nicholas Stern, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change all lending to the sense of urgency, and connecting with the public in a way that for years had seemed impossible.

The U.S. is now more or less isolated as a Kyoto nonratifier (unless you count its good friends Libya and Syria), with the victory of Kevin Rudd in Australia, who ratified Kyoto as his first official act. His predecessor, John Howard, had been a stalwart U.S. ally in all retrograde activity from the war on Iraq to war on the climate, and the reversal of government there may be a harbinger of things to come for the U.S.

However, not all is rosy, as Canada is in some ways looking even worse off than the U.S.: it has ratified Kyoto, but the federal government looks set to simply ignore its commitments. This will surely create a crisis of confidence in the international regime if there are no repercussions.

In addition, it is not clear what the U.S. considers “progress.” Despite President Bush’s new warm rhetoric on the U.N., substantive areas of disagreement remain. Primarily, the U.S. still opposes binding emission-reduction targets set at the international level, although it has suggested it could adopt national targets. The U.S. strategy could thus be to support a U.N. agreement on long-term global reductions, but with each country establishing a target for itself — an outcome unacceptable to most other parties. Under this model, more cooperation would be found in international technology partnerships like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, the Methane-to-Markets Partnership, or the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum, which are essentially toothless forums for information exchange.

Somehow, though, it is hard not to be optimistic, given how badly things are going. That is to say, as evidence of the seriousness of climate change is finally breaking through to the popular consciousness, there is a groundswell of public and political concern that would have seemed like a pipe dream only two years ago. Failing to iron out a process in Bali leading to agreement in Copenhagen would be a waste of a historic opportunity. And if backward governments refuse to listen to reason in Bali, down at Kuta Beach there may still be plenty of guys selling just the kind of equipment needed to get the point across.