[Editor’s note: This dispatch comes from my colleague Dr. Timmons Roberts, Acting Director of the Program in Environmental Science and Policy and Professor of Sociology at the College of William and Mary. His co-authored book “A Climate of Injustice” was published by MIT Press in January, 2007. Dr. Roberts was asked by UNESCO to present a keynote address at their event in Bali this past Friday, and sent this note back to students at the College of William and Mary.]
I promised before I left that I would write you some news from the UN negotiations in Bali on climate change, so finally here goes.
Being here is an absolute roller coaster of emotion. Bali is a stunningly beautiful place, with Hindu temples and offerings everywhere, gorgeous beaches, and perhaps the kindest people I have ever met anywhere. It also seems safe, except for the crazy traffic on the roads, whose havoc I’m just beginning to understand.
This beauty is contrasted with what has become my utter humiliation to be an American. I feel totally helpless to do anything positive to influence my country’s obstinate and totally disingenuous positions in the negotiation. After setting back the global effort to address this tremendously complex issue over the past ten years, the U.S. is again undermining emerging consensus decisions on nearly everything.
I wish I were exaggerating. The Climate Action Network is the U.N.-recognized umbrella organization of environmental groups, with representatives from countries all over the world, and regional and state representatives from across the United States. Each day CAN gives out a “Fossil of the Day” award, for the country acting most, shall we say, “non-constructively”. Two issues of their daily newsletter “ECO” are here in the pile of materials I have collected this week. The first one has the U.S. winning first place “Fossil” for “a litany of misdeeds”. The other day has the U.S. sweeping first, second and third places. One misdeed was for our “blocking consensus” on a crucial text about the transfer of “clean technology” to developing countries at reduced prices. The second was for removing crucial scientifically-based language on targets of reductions for industrialized countries by 2020. The third was for “blocking consensus” on an innovative proposal to reduce deforestation in tropical countries by compensating them for the development opportunities they would give up.
These were three crucial pieces of what is to be called “The Bali Roadmap” on how the world’s nations are going to negotiate a replacement to the Kyoto Protocol when it runs out in 2012. In the 1997 Kyoto treaty there are clear instructions that a replacement must be in place by 2009. The complexity of the issue means that even two years is barely enough time to hammer out the difficult issues, but the U.S. administration has repeatedly undermined the effort.
This is my third time coming to the U.N. negotiations on climate change. Each time it seems that the world is ready to move forward, but that the U.S. makes it impossible to do so.
Just a few years ago I used to say that a social movement to drive serious international action on climate change required an “impossible coalition.” One would have to mobilize the future generations who are going to suffer the most from our actions today, the poorest of the poor in developing countries who already are, and a dedicated band of alarmed scientists and environmentalists.
Scientists themselves are trained to be so cautious and apolitical that they have hesitated to take any hard positions in the face of 10, 5 or even 1 percent uncertainty about where the climate was going. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) has four times now brought together 3,000 scientists from across the globe to evaluate the evidence on climate change. The uncertainty has dropped each time, and the spring, 2007 version of their reports cited unequivocal evidence of already existing climate change, devastating impacts mounting already, and some truly terrifying projections of where we are headed. They document clearly how our burning of fossil fuels is releasing carbon dioxide and a series of other gases, which are accumulating in the atmosphere and keeping in more and more heat. While “global warming” seems kind of nice at this time of year back home, we are essentially cooking ourselves. The only logical response, they say, is that we need to turn down the heat by sharply reducing our burning of coal, oil, gas and rainforests.
This is why the coalition is no longer “impossible.” The scientists are moving from alarmed measurement to clearer expressions of their concern. Meteorologists and laypeople everywhere are noticing the summers just have been getting hotter and longer. Droughts have hit Atlanta and broad parts of the Southeast. The predictions are coming true even earlier than expected, as some key “sinks” of carbon are no longer able to absorb extra CO2. Many environmental groups that used to treat climate change as one of several issues now have taken it on as their core organizational mission. The media is covering climate change, which is not going away, in more and more sections of the newspaper, as it affects lifestyles, business, gardens, travel, shopping, and so on.
But most of all, the poor nations of the world and even the poor in the wealthy nations are experiencing the destruction of their means of subsistence. Over the past two days I listened to a seemingly endless parade of national statements from all the world’s countries about climate change and the negotiations going on here. The science or environment ministers of one nation after another told us of how they are suffering already from droughts, typhoons, flooding and sea level rise which have set back their development by years or decades. They are disgusted that the wealthiest nation on Earth is undermining their desperate efforts to get the help they need to survive a problem they didn’t even create (an American emits many times what they do into the air).
New players are joining the coalition. Mayors and governors from cities and states in the U.S. are here for the first time in big numbers, adopting their own pledges to reduce their emissions sharply, and learning from other cities on how they might make good on their word. “Green technology” and carbon trading companies are everywhere here, selling heat pumps, solar, wind, and nuclear power gizmos, and describing the “offsets” they have to offer. This is a frontier of business opportunity.
Just in the last two years, development organizations like Oxfam, Christian Aid, Tearfund and ActionAid have strongly taken up the issue of climate change, driven by their alarm that their decades of development work are being rolled back by droughts and floods. And crucially, churches in the U.S. have just begun to take up this issue in big numbers, which they see as a moral issue of not just protecting God’s Creation, but also not inflicting direct harm on helpless people around the world. A new coalition of environmentalists, aid groups, and churches have been pivotal in changing the momentum for the new “Climate Security Act” co-sponsored by Senator John Warner. Included in that bill is funding to help poor nations to “adapt” to climate change.
So, dear students, these are some of the mountains and valleys of the Bali negotiations. I wish I could write you an upbeat missive about how we are saving the world. But the biggest valley on the Bali Rollercoaster, and drag on any efforts to move up the next mountain, is the U.S.’s behavior here. Our government’s representatives are decent enough people, but they are forced by their superiors to take negotiating positions that again delay what are critical efforts to find a collective solution. The whole world can only wonder at the motivations of a country that after years of saying “we need more science” then ignores the clear mandates that the science informs. So the real work we need to do as Americans is not here in Bali, it is back home. The world awaits the outcome of the 2008 presidential elections, but with 400 days until inauguration and an agreement needed by December 2009, the world cannot wait. Neither should we as individuals, universities, cities, churches, clubs and states, and neither should the U.S. Congress. As for me, I’ve had enough of this humiliation. I’m coming home.