It is a rather normal human desire to want to succeed at whatever tasks to which we set ourselves, whether it’s climbing a mountain or just washing the clothes. When it comes to politicians and negotiators, however, that normal desire to succeed can often overcome the realities of the day. In the case of the recent U.N. conference on climate change in Bali, those who want us to believe they succeeded at their task have generated a ferocious amount of spin. The sad truth is, they did not.
For those who may not have been paying all that much attention to international news in the midst of our holiday season, a little background on what was supposed to happen in Bali may be useful. Nearly two hundred nations from around the world sent delegations to the United Nation’s Bali negotiations, where representatives from 348 non-governmental organizations joined them.
The goal of the Bali effort was to address the mounting problems resulting from global climate change and to set hard numbers for the reduction of greenhouse gases—particularly for the industrialized nations of the world, which have traditionally been responsible for emitting most of the global warming gases now wracking the planet’s environment.
The last major attempt to find international agreement on reducing greenhouse gases took place in Kyoto, Japan, 10 years ago. Virtually all of the world’s industrialized nations signed on to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2012, when the agreement expires. Significantly, two major industrialized nations did not sign the Kyoto Protocol—Australia and the United States. President Bush took the lead in forcefully rejecting Kyoto with a head-in-the-sand approach that basically gave economic growth unquestioned precedence over any damage the country might be doing to Earth’s climate.
To its credit, Australia signed on to the Kyoto Protocol this December following the ousting of Prime Minister John Howard, Bush’s ally in both the Iraq War and the denial of global warming. His replacement, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, of the Australian Labor Party, represents good news for the globe and leaves the United States as the last of the industrialized nations still merrily polluting our way to extinction. The really horrible part of it all is that we not only remain the world’s single largest producer of greenhouse gases, but on a per capita basis, we are light years ahead of the rest of humankind in creating the pollution that is destroying our planet. China is catching up and may surpass us in coming years on overall greenhouse gas emissions, but since they have an extra billion people or so, it will be a long, long time before they even begin to challenge our dubious leadership in per capita emissions.
Those who have been paying attention to the increasing coverage of the rapidly escalating effects of global warming will recall that the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published four major reports on the topic this year. The many contributors to the reports, including University of Montana scientists Steve Running and Wei Min Hao—along with former Vice-President Al Gore—all shared the Nobel Prize this year for their work.
And so it was a natural progression, with Kyoto set to expire, to build a new global consensus to address the threats, to bring countries together in a unified effort of self-preservation, and to set the parameters for emissions reductions for the future. Hence, the Bali conference with its global attendance.
As it turned out, however, the role of the United States at this conference was nothing if not shameful—a shame that coming generations will rightfully look back on and wonder what we were thinking, only to conclude that we were simply not thinking at all.
To make a long story short, the United States was booed and hissed by the entire body of the delegation, threatened by the European Union, and vilified for our steadfast refusal to accept any limits on our pollution whatsoever, let alone accept hard numbers for reduction of our greenhouse gas emission levels.
The sentiment was obvious in this week’s media coverage. The Asia Times had this to say: “Undersecretary of State for Democracy of Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky, the U.S. delegation head, continually professed her desire to reach consensus while rejecting consensus positions.” The New York Times story put it more bluntly: “When the delegate from Papua New Guinea, Kevin Conrad, asked to speak, opposition to the U.S. had reached a crescendo. ‘We seek your leadership,’ he said referring to the United States. ‘But if for some reason you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please, get out of the way.’”
Unfortunately, the United States did not “get out of the way.” Instead, the Asia Times noted a statement widely criticized as evidence of the Bush administration’s blatant hypocrisy on global warming: “More quotably, White House Council on Environmental Quality chairman James Connaughton gave the latest formulation of President George W. Bush’s infamous, ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us.’ Connaughton said, ‘The U.S. will lead, and we will continue to lead, but leadership also requires others to fall in line and follow.’”
In the end, the so-called Bali Road Map says, as columnist Paul Krugman put it, “that the United States, under pressure, has agreed to—well, not to actually do anything about climate change, but to talk about doing something about climate change.” The talking is supposed to continue through 2009. Sometime around 2013, if you are of a delusional nature, expect agreements to actually cut greenhouse gas emissions.
My dictionary defines “ballyhoo” as “a noisy, attention-getting demonstration or talk; flamboyant, exaggerated, or sensational advertising or propaganda.” Seems to me that’s what we just saw in Bali—and the wildly escalated pronouncements of the success in addressing climate change there—might best be defined as “Bali-hooey.”