The Start of the World’s Last Chance

UPDATE:  I participated in a round-table discussion of the Bali talks on the NewsHour on PBS on Dec. 17th -- please see the video and transcript

Late Saturday in Bali, after overcoming last-minute U.S. objections, more than 180 countries agreed to negotiate, over the next two years, a new global deal to curb global warming. 

The Bali agreement marks the start of the world’s last chance to reach a treaty that will stave off catastrophic climate impacts.

Scientists tell us that we have only another 10 years to turn worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide downwards if we want to avoid the worst effects of global warming.  The good news is that we have the technology and solutions to dramatically cut heat-trapping pollution while continuing strong economic growth. 

Here in Bali, countries have set a two-year agenda for negotiating what comes after the Kyoto Protocol.  That treaty sets caps on emissions only through 2012 and only for developed countries.  And because President Bush pulled out in 2001, it puts no limits on U.S. emissions. 

For too long, the Bush administration has blamed China and done nothing at home.  But here in Bali, China, Brazil, South Africa and other big developing countries showed unprecedented willingness to start negotiating real actions to slow and reverse their own growing emissions. 

What was so odd on Saturday is that the Bush officials in charge of the U.S. delegation could not take yes for an answer.  In the final public session, web-casted around the world (here, click on "part 3, original"), Under Secretary of State Paula Dobriansky objected to a cosmetic change in language on developing countries to which she'd earlier agreed.  Developing countries, she said, hadn't sufficiently committed to curb their emissions, and the U.S. wouldn't go along.

The blowback was like nothing I have ever seen in normally polite international talks. Country after country pounded the U.S. position, some angry, some imploring Dobriansky to back up.  "Lead, follow, or get out of the way," said Papua New Guinea in a new version of the mouse that roared. 

It was a rout.  Less than an hour later, the U.S. gave up and joined the consensus, 

Other countries, both developed and developing, are ready to move forward.  But they need to see real progress from the U.S., which has been the world’s biggest emitter for more than half a century.  Now we need to do our part.

Fortunately, the politics of global warming have dramatically changed in America over the past year.  States and cities are acting, and a broad coalition of business and environmental leaders are looking for national legislation. 

Congress is on the verge of passing a new energy bill raising fuel economy standards to 35 miles per gallon by 2020, increasing renewable fuels, and setting new efficiency standards.  And a key Senate committee has passed the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, which will cut total U.S. global warming pollution up to 25 percent by 2020 and up to two thirds by 2050. 

The next presidential election takes place at the halfway point in these treaty talks.  So the U.S. will field a new team in the second half.  And there are good odds that the next president will get serious on global warming.

That’s the world’s best hope to pull this off.