Do not be downhearted about the outcome of the Bali talks. They did not deliver the binding commitments to cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that are desperately needed.
But they did show us something remarkable: the human race trying to grow up and take responsibility for its common future.
It doesn’t feel like that, of course. It feels like 15,000 politicians, diplomats, journalists and activists flew across continents to sit in Bali for two weeks and achieve very little.
Disappointment and even anger are not out of order. The commitment to early and deep emission cuts (25 to 40 per cent by 2020) that most developed countries wanted to see in the draft treaty had to be dropped in order to keep the U.S. involved at all.
The Bush administration no longer denies that climate change is a problem, but it is still determined to kill any international deal that involves concrete and legally binding targets. The U.S. produces about a quarter of the world’s emissions, so no deal that excludes it would work.
Moreover, the developing countries where emissions are growing fastest, particularly China and India, will never accept obligations of their own while the U.S. accepts none.
So the American delegation had to be kept on board no matter how obstructive it was.
It was amazingly obstructive. There must be no targets, there must be no timetables, there must be no numbers at all in the “road map’’ that the conference was drawing up for the next two years of negotiations on a successor to the Kyoto treaty, insisted chief U.S. negotiator Harlan Watson.
Why not? Because “once numbers appear in the text, it prejudges the outcome and will tend to drive the negotiations in one direction.”
The U.S. was almost completely isolated at the Bali talks. Its only two allies among the developed countries were Canada and Japan, both of which promised modest emission cuts under the Kyoto agreement 10 years ago but then allowed their emissions to soar.
The danger was that the frustration and fury of all the other delegations in the hothouse atmosphere of a two-week conference would pitch them into a pointless and destructive confrontation with the U.S.
It was Al Gore who saved the day with a speech in which he urged the conference to be patient. “My own country is mainly responsible for obstructing progress at Bali,” he admitted, but “over the next two years the U.S. is going to be somewhere it is not now. One year and 40 days from today there will be a new [presidential] inauguration.
“If you decide to continue the progress that has been made here on all the items other than the targets and timetables, on the hope and with the expectation that before this process is concluded you will be able to fill in that blank [with the help of a different position from the U.S.], then you can make great progress here.”
The conference took Gore’s advice and removed the numbers from the text. Even then, astonishingly, the U.S. delegation declared that it could not support the revised text – and a chorus of boos rang out in the crowded conference hall.
After a short huddle, the U.S. delegation announced that it would support the revised text after all.
So don’t believe the cynics who say public opinion doesn’t matter. A large majority of Americans are far ahead of their government, and it suddenly became clear to the U.S. delegation that this line of trenches had to be abandoned fast.So there is a “road map” for the next two years of negotiations, although it has no hard numbers in it. Low-level meetings will continue over the next year, but the next big conference, scheduled for Poland next December, will probably be allowed to slip by a couple of months so the new U.S. administration is in office. And then, hopefully, they can put the numbers back in.
There is no guarantee that the emissions cuts finally agreed upon in 2009 will be big enough, or that everybody will meet their commitments.
But Bali was not a futile or a shameful exercise. It was 6 billion people in 180 separate countries trying to cope with a shared danger in a cooperative way. It was actually quite inspiring, and even 50 years ago it would have been inconceivable.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.