THE HAGUE, Netherlands

An hour’s drive from the crowded convention hall where international negotiators are toiling to reach some agreement on fighting climate change, you can visit one of the enormous storm surge barriers the Dutch have built to keep the North Sea at bay. Comprising hundreds of thousands of tons of concrete and steel, they stand guard at the river mouths to prevent another hurricane-driven flood like the one in 1953 that claimed 1,800 lives. They are the ultimate architecture of prevention, erected when the network of smaller dikes and sea walls and wooden-shoed boys sticking out their fingers proved too flimsy. “We are masters of the tide now,” said a tour guide proudly as he led us around. “Not God, but us.”

Here in the convention hall, thousands of tired people from around the world are busy trying to plan something similar to hold back the rush of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The first question is, are they at work designing a sturdy wall, or are there so many holes in their blueprint that it will quickly be swamped? And the second question is, if they agree on a design, will it ever be built?

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What makes the situation especially tricky is that the better a dam they sketch out, the less likely it is to get built.

That’s because the United States delegation keeps insisting it can’t sell a strong climate change treaty at home. And to judge by the drift of conversation around the conference today, the U.S. seems to be winning the argument. The level of tension is surprisingly low; it’s as if the rest of the world has begun to concede the fight.

Exhibit A in the delegation’s drive for a loophole-ridden treaty is the U.S. Senate, which is of course on record as opposing a Kyoto-like agreement. American negotiators insist that even the modest 7 percent cuts it pledged at Kyoto in 1997 will only be ratified by the Senate if most of the emissions can be gained painlessly — not by asking Americans to drive more efficient cars, say, but by counting our forests as “carbon sinks” and allowing us to buy cheap emissions credits abroad.

Fumbling Towards Bethlehem

And U.S. senators are on hand to prove the delegation’s point. Chuck Hagel (R), the Nebraskan arch-opponent of the Kyoto Protocol, has journeyed here with a band of like-minded colleagues. They are more genial than they were three years ago in Japan, in part because they seem to have accepted a little more of the science around climate change, in part because the political equation has shifted some, and mostly because they’re winning the bulk of their battles to weaken the treaty.

“We are fumbling our way towards finding a world community in which our sovereignties are held whole,” Sen. Larry Craig (R – Idaho) said during an afternoon press briefing on Monday. If George W. Bush becomes president, added Hagel, “he would be in a position to lead on the issue of getting our arms around greenhouse gas emissions.” Though neither said they thought a treaty emerging from this conclave would be ratifiable, Craig said a Bush administration should not send it to the Senate for a “slam dunk rejection,” adding, “I believe we ought to stay engaged with the rest of the world on this because science is starting to tell us we have a problem.”

An incredulous journalist at the press hearing, who identified himself as a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, rose to defend the true faith. “Given that the science is still uncertain,” he huffed, how could the senators be backing away from a pure rejectionist stance? Craig responded that five years ago he would have agreed. “But I think there is now a coalescing of the science.”

Language like that leads some in the environmental community to think they might have a prayer of Senate ratification, albeit some time in the distance after the Europeans and Japanese go first and a deal is brokered with the Chinese and the Indians to bring them into the process. Environmentalists are unwilling to surrender the Kyoto process. In the words of Environmental Defense senior scientist Michael Oppenheimer, “It might take 10 years to get some kind of process started again.”

And with that as the context, many American environmentalists and international scientists seem willing to go along with loopholes they admit are way too broad, simply to get the process underway. Robert Watson, the head of the U.N.-sponsored scientific Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said in a briefing today that he thought scientists could work out a method to measure changes in the amount of carbon that forests were storing, allowing those “sinks” to be included in the treaty. And other American campaigners were touting plans to pay farmers for changing tillage practices, less because they believed it would really sequester much carbon than because they thought it might bring crucial farm-state senators on board any Kyoto coalition. Sens. Hagel and Craig both brightened at the thought of subsidies for farmers, and for what Craig called “active forest management” to prevent carbon-spewing forest fires.

At bottom, environmentalists like Oppenheimer are banking on the thought that once some kind of treaty is finally approved and business and government begin to make even the most modest attempts to implement it, they’ll find the going easier than they expected. “Energy use is already going up much more slowly than economic growth. With the barest of incentives, we could push energy use way down,” Oppenheimer predicts. And he better be right, because the incentives that will emerge from this week’s negotiations will be bare at best.

Head-in-the-Sand Barbie

So bare that other environmentalists are pushing hard to toughen the treaty. One group of activists calling themselves Rising Tide, whose members were squatting in a nearby building, were denied admission to the conference venue for “security reasons” even though they’d been accredited. Some 225 American students, organized by Greenpeace and staying in a jam-packed, festive youth hostel across town, managed to get inside the hall, where they held a massive press conference, greeted arriving delegates with handouts calling for closing loopholes, and managed to elude security guards long enough to hand Hagel a Barbie doll upside down in a bucket of soil: “the head-in-the-sand award.”

It’s not clear, however, how much support the enviros enjoy with the European negotiators — who may, after this fall’s fuel-price protests, find themselves thinking a little more like American politicians.

In the end, almost no one here is arguing for a massive dam to hold back climate change. Build that and the U.S. simply won’t participate. Instead, we’re talking about a few rocks tossed in the ocean. Perhaps, say the optimists, once the process begins it will pick up momentum, and pretty soon everyone will be chucking in boulders.

Inside this vast hall, caught up in the self-reinforcing logic of 10,000 people determined to reach some kind of agreement, it’s difficult to gauge just how much wishful thinking that represents.