This is a guest essay from Andrew Light, an environmental ethicist and professor of philosophy and public affairs at the University of Washington in Seattle. He attended the Bali meetings as an observer and participant in a side event. The essay comes to us from Nusa Dua, Indonesia.


I must admit, I clapped. I was probably among the loudest.

Drawing a line in the sand

A line in the sand.
Photo: iStockphoto

With the negotiations here in Bali for the U.N. conference on climate change facing an apparent intractable deadlock going into their last day, I was in a standing-room-only auditorium to hear former Vice President Al Gore address the assembled environmental community, business leaders, and state representatives. For those familiar with Gore’s stump speech on global warming, and his acceptance address for the Nobel Peace Prize earlier in the week, much in his comments was familiar.

One line changed all that. Cautiously hoped for by some, unanticipated by most, it changed the climate in the room considerably: “I am not a representative of my government, so I am not bound by diplomatic niceties. My own country, the United States, is principally responsible for obstructing progress here in Bali. [Applause.] We all know that.

With these words, Gore expressed the extreme sense of frustration most in the room had been feeling this past week over the U.S. delegation’s refusal to commit to language in the Bali roadmap for cuts of 25 to 40 percent of greenhouse gases below 1990 levels by industrialized countries in the next extension of the Kyoto Protocol due to be settled in 2009. More than that, by openly criticizing the Bush administration, Gore had definitively answered those tempted to lump all Americans together on this issue — a welcome relief for those of us who had become progressively more embarrassed by our country’s position and inability to effectively explain its reasons.

When offered, those reasons were simply lame. Why did the U.S. block the emissions cut goal? To avoid “prejudging” the outcome of the next treaty. In the end they won, finally getting an agreement from the E.U. for a document that will not require an outcome wherein the U.S., or any other country, embraces a goal for eventual caps on its emissions.

What exactly would the 25 to 40 percent goal have prejudged? This is a difficult question to answer, especially in light of American negotiators’ public praise this week of the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and their recognition of the validity of the conclusions drawn in its most recent Fourth Assessment report. It can’t be that cuts are needed — only skeptics still hold that view, and the administration has renounced this position. It must be the specific figure proposed in the Bali document and the sorts of economic transformations that would be required to meet cuts in that range.

It didn’t need to be this way though. The stakes were actually low enough at this meeting that no hard-line brinksmanship was necessary. We could have instead showed up intent on demonstrating a more constructive role for the U.S., sending a message to the world that we are now serious on this issue. Instead, we drew an unnecessary line in the Bali sand.

At the beginning of this past week I met a reporter who was bored with what he was covering so far. After all, nothing was really being decided. The member parties of the U.N. framework were really just negotiating about negotiating — laying out the relatively broad aspirational brush strokes of what a future climate treaty would look like. The goals for cuts stipulated in the Bali roadmap would not set up a binding parameter on the next treaty, but only outline a reasonable, and, given the dire warnings of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, prudent expectation for the language of the next treaty. Even if a target range could be used to exert some pressure on the shape of the next treaty, it would not be unassailable.

By the end of the week, the refusal by the U.S. to agree to even this minimal language had turned the meeting into a crisis worthy of front page and top-of-the-hour reporting. The reporter I met earlier was now scrambling. A diplomatic stalemate had been created with repercussions beyond Bali, extending into the administration’s planned Major Economies Meeting in Hawaii next month, where Bush would push forward his own voluntary approach. Because the U.S. would not even accept compromise language committing only previous signatories of the Kyoto Protocol to the goal of a 25 to 40 percent cut (so, not us), the administration seemed intent on keeping everyone from having aspirations to do what they thought was the right thing.

Why did the U.S. hold out? Why did the administration continue to alienate us in the eyes of the rest of the world? I’m not sure, but here are four potential reasons.

1. The Bush administration was trying to protect their friends in the energy sector, who helped get them get elected.

If this is the case, then this administration is politically naïve — and that simply isn’t true. This is the explanation many of us gave in 2000 after Bush reneged on his campaign promise to regulate CO2 as pollution, and Cheney kept his list of environmental advisors secret. It was an explanation that seemed plausible in 2004, when the administration was still harboring doubts about the science.

But now those days are past, and such an explanation holds less and less water. It evinces even more leaks in light of the current thinking of the business community on this issue. In addition to those businesses who have actively adopted an ethic of responsibility about climate change, those that remain see a changing regulatory climate and don’t like the options. In his remarks, Gore repeated the promising news that had been at the center of John Kerry’s message to the conference earlier in the week: The states are on the move. Regional state compacts have been launched in the Northeast, Midwest, and West on cutting greenhouse gases, which will commit over half the U.S. economy, and just under half the population, to significant cuts, amounting to responsibility for just under 40 percent of total U.S. emissions.

No business working across borders wants to work under three or more sets of climate regulations. As a representative from a prominent utility put it in Bali, those working on the regional compacts should not get too comfortable, as they will inevitably lead into a federal system (most likely cap and trade) and eventually an international system. If these are the friends of the Bush administration, they apparently no longer want protection from regulators, but instead require support to build a single, coherent regulatory system.

2. The administration didn’t want to burden the next presidential administration with the expectation that the next treaty should contain mandatory caps of this magnitude.

Sound implausible? The Washington Post reported that in a closed-door meeting on Friday, U.S. senior climate negotiator Harlan Watson told Democratic aides “they should be grateful the United States was resisting mandatory emissions targets. ‘I’m doing you a favor,’ he said.” But again, I find this explanation implausible. For one thing, it is presumptuous and mistakenly paternalistic. It is hard to believe that this administration is really trying now, on this issue, to reach across the aisle or assist a Democratic president who actually wants to participate in the Kyoto process.

And if a Republican wins the next election, there is a good chance that he will either also want to cooperate with the rest of the world on climate change, or be forced to do so by the people and the Congress, in which case the administration is just increasing the hurdles he will have to get over to win international trust in the next diplomatic round. Besides, given the legacy — leaving the next president with the problem of Iraq — this would be a relatively small, non-binding burden, and of very little help.

3. The Bush administration is stalling the process until commitments for cuts are garnered from China, India, Brazil, and other high-output developing countries.

The U.S. has staked this claim as a bedrock of its opposition since the beginning and used it as a reason to prevent our own EPA from regulating carbon under the Clean Air Act even while it was still denying the scientific basis of the problem. What this position leaves out, and was also shockingly absent from the original debate over Kyoto in the U.S. Senate (where a non-binding vote ran 95-0 against the treaty), is any recognition that the Kyoto treaty is part of a process and not a one-off attempt to solve the problem.

Developing countries must be shown that there will be real leadership on climate change from the wealthy polluters, not in order to bide their time on the sidelines, but with some reasonable assurance that mitigation and adaptation efforts will not prevent needed development. Look at the debate in Bali over technology transfer. As the Pakistani environment minister put it, without help to acquire clean technologies, compliance with an international regime of carbon cuts and sustainable development would be at odds.

This is not only a fair claim, it is premised on joining an international regime. In one press briefing, James Connaughton, chief of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, put it this way: “We will lead. The U.S. will lead. But leadership also requires others to fall in line and follow.” While analytically true, it begs the question: Why would anyone follow a leader who appears to be standing still?

4. The administration was simply trying to save face.

After seven years of being the chief impediment to an effective global treaty, ostensibly because of doubts about the scientific consensus, and now being forced to publicly relinquish those doubts, the administration is reaching for a reason to re-justify its mistaken position after the fact. We’ve heard this one before in other areas of foreign policy.

If this is true, it is beyond sad. It’s tragic. It is not the kind of behavior we would expect of a democratic global power facing what may be, in the words of the theologian Thomas Berry, the great work of our generation.

At the end, all explanations, those offered to us by the U.S. delegation and those we dream up ourselves, are unsatisfactory.

Which brings me back to Thursday night in Bali, listening to Gore’s speech. He knew what he was saying in this applause-generating line, and the implications of saying it. Unfortunately, too many media outlets have left out the remarks that followed. Gore outlined two paths for those who had applauded: either get mad, or move forward on the assumption that things will change in the U.S. in the next two years, creating a better environment for a cooperative agreement that the U.S. will eventually join.

The outcome was essentially the second path. According to Hans Verolme, director of the World Wildlife Fund climate-change program, what we now have is a document that leaves “a seat at the table for the next U.S. president, but clearly the Bush administration has shown it’s not serious about using the best available science to craft a deal that reflects the urgency of the threat of dangerous climate change. The serious countries will do their best to strike a serious deal in 2009.”

By drawing an unnecessary line in the sands of Bali, the Bush administration has proven itself not serious about one of the most important moral issues of our time. In that respect, while the world has continued down Gore’s second constructive path, we should also reserve the right to at least revisit the first path — getting angry — just for a while.

Bush has let down the majority of Americans, who want something to be done on global warming, and the broader international community, which is now prepared to do something about it. The reason it felt good to applaud Gore’s zinger on Thursday is that we should feel good about being on the right side of an issue like this one, even in the midst of our frustration.

Still, righteous indignation can be a good spark for renewed commitment, but it can’t be relied upon to get us where we need to go. The world community has graciously left us a spot at the table to prove ourselves over the next two years. When we do that — when we take our seat and lead — we’ll really have something worth applauding.