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And then there was one: U.S. stands alone at U.N. conference on greenhouse gases

The executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Yvo de Boer, delivers a speech during the opening session of a major U.N. conference in Bali on Monday.
REUTERS/Supri Supri
The executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Yvo de Boer, delivers a speech during the opening session of a major U.N. conference in Bali on Monday.


First there were two, and now there is one — one outlier in the world’s effort to curb global climate change. It just happens to be the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, and it happens to be us — i.e. the U.S. Australia, the only other industrial naysayer of the Kyoto Protocol, left the United States isolated on Monday when its new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, signed papers ratifying the pact.

Rudd’s first official act elicited applause in Bali, where a major United Nations conference of nearly 190 nations began this week in an effort to negotiate a route to replacing the Kyoto agreement. The pact will expire in 2012, and delegates will try to have a framework for a broader effort in place by 2009. Momentum has seemed inevitable since the blockbuster United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) report came out this fall to set the stage for the Bali conference (and win a Nobel Prize in the process). Yet even as the scientists’ blunt conclusions — that global warming not only exists but that human activity is very likely causing it — sank in, few seemed to think the United States will move beyond its support for voluntary, not mandatory, emission cuts. Nor do many think fast-developing nations like China will do much more than press for stiffer cuts for the most industrialized nations.

Still, it is human nature to hope for a more unified approach next time around. Malini Mehra, a BBC commentator from India, points out that we are imperiled “as a species, not as nationalities,” and calls for the articulation of “a new global ethics and a politics of the possible” to drive change. Opening words at the conference sounded similar themes, and some have predicted a somewhat more positive China, the world’s second-biggest carbon emitter, than has been seen in the past.

Geoffrey York, reporting for the Toronto Globe and Mail in Beijing, wrote that “China is much more keenly aware of how global warming is inflicting heavy damage on its own economy. Recent studies have warned, for example, that China’s rice harvest could plunge by 37 percent by the second half of this century if global warming continues. It would also face increasing droughts and water shortages if nothing is done.” He added: “China’s real interest in Bali, however, is to persuade Western countries to transfer their environmental technology to China as cheaply as possible. Beijing repeatedly makes the argument that the foreign technology would allow China to achieve its environmental goals much faster. To ensure a cheap price, the West should stop insisting on protecting the intellectual property rights of this technology, China says.”

Tough talks ahead

Of course each nation will press its own perspective. For example, David Fogarty, writing for Reuters, observed that governments’ opening remarks “hinted at tough talks ahead. China insisted rich countries cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 25 to 40 percent by 2020, while Japan said China’s active participation in a new climate deal was ‘essential.’ ” Meanwhile, deforestation, technology transfers and the relative responsibilities of poorer developing nations will be major topics of discussion, predicts a Reuters backgrounder.

Perhaps the best hope for success lies in the combination of stark realities laid out in the IPCC report and the publicity generated both by the report and the Nobel Prize bestowed on its scientists and Al Gore. “The eyes of the world are upon you. There is a huge responsibility for Bali to deliver,” conference leader Yvo de Boer told delegates. “The world now expects a quantum leap forward.”

Susan Albright, a former editor of the Star Tribune’s editorial pages, writes about national and foreign developments.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Jackley Jackley on 12/04/2007 - 06:42 pm.

    Okay, bear with me–this relates:

    While contemplating the United States’ stance on environmenatal responsibility, as it stands today (era of Global Warming), the words “sub-prime” echo continuously in my mind…

    While I am not naïve enough to think that it was simply deregulation of the mortgage-lending market that led to the abysmal falling out we’re experiencing today, but I’m confident enough to say this: it played a damn big part. Companies were suddenly allowed to run rampant, and ignorant consumers had very little or no protection.

    While both sides are to blame, between consumers who knew they were getting in over their heads and careless companies, I think most people know where to pick sides. Working in real estate advertising, I have a fair idea of what people are experiencing who are trying to sell their homes—and judging from the surplus of rentals on the market, and rapidly dropping real estate prices, getting a picture of where people stand who are actually losing their homes is not hard.

    So it only bodes unwell that we (the United States) continue to view the environmental crisis the world, as a whole, must face as an elected train of thought. To leave the reduction of emissions to each company’s honor is a tragically misguided mistake. To expect a corporation to be anything other than what it is, a profit-driven entity constantly scrutinizing its bottom line, is foolish. And to rely upon the good will of personal responsibility is nothing short of unrealistic.

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