Kenny Bruno explains why “Just Hang in there 13 more months” was the unoffiical motto of the Bali conference on climate change.

Despite a last minute dramatic confrontation, the recent Climate Convention meeting in Bali, touted as “the most important climate meeting in 10 years,” turned out to be business as usual. First, most of two weeks passed with a lot of talk and little progress, then we had a flurry of round the clock negotiations, and finally a collective sigh of relief accompanied by some spin.

In fact, the meeting just barely escaped being a total fiasco. There was just enough of an agreement reached at the 11th hour for your average Minister to return home with his or her head held, if not high, then without a paper bag over it. The unthinkable – letting the Kyoto Protocol targets expire in 2012 without an agreement to succeed it – did not happen.

Despite the last second save, this was a disappointing meeting, especially given that 2007 was an incredible year of consciousness raising about climate. Still, there was enough enthusiasm and energy at the meeting to take away a little optimism about the world’s readiness to finally tackle climate change. It was refreshing to see high level government representatives take the issue on with what seemed to be renewed energy, if not renewable energy.

Unfortunately, this seriousness was not matched by the United States, and therefore, as Al Gore explained in his speech, the world needs to look ahead to the next Administration. “Just Hang In There 13 More Months” was the unofficial motto of the conference.

Talk About Low Expectations

Naturally, given past experience, expectations of U.S. behavior at the meeting were abysmally low, and this was reflected in side events and informal discussions, where U.S. intransigence was taken as given. Even so, the U.S. delegation managed to sink below those expectations, earning the reprobation not only of the NGOs in Bali, but of basically the entire rest of the world. The lack of cooperation and even insulting behavior has been well documented by other observers. The dramatic final confrontation, in which diplomats booed the U.S. delegation for a full minute before its lead negotiator relented, may have been an emotional and political breakthrough. But, by itself, this “humbling” of the world’s superpower does little to advance the fight against climate change.

To see this moment as a triumph requires a fundamental understanding of the United States government as recalcitrant and belligerent. Bizarrely, the widespread acceptance of this anti-U.S. view serves the Bush Administration’s goals, because its modest retreat from an outrageous position can then be perceived as a victory for the rest of the world. The U.S. does barely enough to remain part of the world community, and yet meets expectations.

The U.S., in its tactics, followed a long term practice of negotiating hard to weaken agreements, and then threatening to walk away even when its positions win out. The only reason the U.S. can get away with it is that, as the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, its participation is necessary for an effective agreement.

It would be fascinating to turn back the clock to 1997, and see what would have happened if the world’s governments, instead of negotiating a Kyoto Protocol they thought acceptable to the U.S., had gone ahead without the U.S. A stronger agreement would have resulted and come into force without U.S. participation. Yet the U.S. did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol anyway. What would have been lost?

Depending on the stance of the next U.S. Administration, the world’s governments may have to try that route post 2012.

Meanwhile, U.S.-based groups, including Oil Change, understand their role is to prepare the grassroots to demand independence from Big Oil and real progress from the next Administration and Congress.

Adaptation Blues

As this was my first climate meeting since 1998, I was on a steep learning curve. From my vantage point as a relative novice, some disturbing and largely unquestioned assumptions were on display.

The heavy focus on adaptation – by NGOs and governments – is one aspect of the current discourse that raises some difficult questions. Of course, with global warming now an observable phenomenon rather than a theory, one would have to be hard-hearted to oppose providing resources for adaptation. For countries that are victims of, but not signficant contributors to, climate change, this focus is completely logical. However, with acceptance of adaptation as a key “plank” of fighting climate change we have crossed a dangerous psychological threshold, and we need to be aware of the implications.

If climate change were a plumbing problem, mitigation would represent fixing the leak; adaptation would be cleaning up the flood in the basement and putting the boxes up on pallets. Both are necessary, but adaptation without mitigation is a Sisyphean task. You would not hire a plumber to continually mop up the basement without first repairing the leak. Adaptation must always be tied to mitigation, yet adaptation tends to take its own course.

This is an especially slippery slope given the news that a 2 degree C rise in temperature is considered inevitable, and that we are now fighting to keep it under that somewhat arbitrary threshold. If we manage to “adapt” to a 2 Degree rise, some will argue that we should continue to adapt, as mitigation is too difficult or too expensive.

The single, central task we face – fixing the leak, i.e. radically reducing emissions – may get delayed yet further by this mentality.

The other disturbing dynamic about the adaptation discussion is set in motion by the well-meaning repetition of the truism that developing countries are hardest hit by climate change. The implication is that, on balance, and relative to developing countries, industrialized countries benefit from their emissions.

A creeping perception of climate change as a developing world problem, albeit one caused by the industrialized world, is extremely dangerous. First, because we must not forget that climate change affects everyone and everything, from wildlife to agriculture to habitability, on a single planet ecosystem. Second, because we cannot rely on “common but differentiated responsibilities” alone, but rather we must appeal to the self interest of the wealthiest countries – and largest emitters – in mitigating global warming.

The climate problem is not quite like most other problems that are solved through intergovernmental negotiations. In the case of climate, mitigation by anyone is good for everyone. Therefore the task is not fundamentally to find a compromise between developed and developing countries but rather to provide incentives for all countries to reduce emissions. A fair adaptation focus is necessary but it must not blur the mitigation picture.

The industrialized world remains, on practical and moral grounds, responsible for setting in motion the radical changes that will lead to mitigation.

What Technology Should Be Transferred?

Technology transfer is another key “plank” of the Bali Roadmap that is a double edged sword. Since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, technology transfer has been considered by developing countries as a key to sustainable development. And surely it is.

However, in the 15 years since, the North has resisted providing technology transfer on anything other than purely commercial terms. So the fight for technology transfer of any kind has gradually taken the place of an insistence on clean technology transfer. Instead of an objective evaluation of whether a technology is sustainable and therefore appropriate for transfer, the assumption is that northern technologies are cleaner, more sustainable and good for development. But this assumption is false, and climate change is the proof, as it is largely the result of the widespread use of the industrialized world’s technologies.

In fact, as Oil Change’s new report and database show, the World Bank and other funders are providing finance for the oil industry in the developing world – over $61 billion in the last six years – and doing so in the name of development.

If the developing countries are finally successful in obtaining substantial technology transfer under the auspices of the Climate Convention, watch out for nukes, “clean coal,” coal to liquids and other false solutions masquerading as clean technology. Watch out for low expectations, caused by frustration over the lack of clean technology transfer, paving the way for an acceptance of dirty technologies. Watch out for business as usual, masquerading as sustainable development and marketed as “sustainable climate solutions.”

Politics and Science: Parallel Universes

On climate, the gap between science and politics is shocking.

For example, one Japanese delegate told me that their 6% cut has been “very difficult.” Wait till they try 60%, as the science tells us they must. But such is their resentment toward the U.S. for making no commitment at all, that they are unlikely to try. The delegate recognized the gap between a 6% cut and what is needed, but essentially said “well, here we are.”

The EU is willing to commit to to 25% – 40% reductions by 2020, which starts to get us there and is a very positive step, if they can do it. But its not clear even then what that means for the climate.

Scientists are telling us that we have a chance to hold average temperature rise to about 2 degrees celsius, if and only if we make deep emissions cuts. The 2 degree target, based on what appears possible, has become the universally accepted goal. But we do not really know that 2 degree rise will result in manageable disruptions – we are just crossing our fingers.

If that’s the best we can do, it makes sense to aim for it. But the Kyoto and post-Kyoto agreements don’t get us there, because the emissions cuts are not deep enough.

Still, one could argue that we have to choose some targets, and that once the new technologies that allow carbon emissions to decline take hold, a new dynamic will take over. Unfortunately, that argument ignores the elephant in the room: Even as negotiators were talking about cuts, Big Oil and Big Coal are making huge investments that will lock us into a high carbon future for decades. One especially egregious instance of this is the Canadian commitment to the carbon-insanity of tar sands, the development of which would offset a million windmills.

If, as seems likely, the 450 ppm – 2 degrees C scenario is breeched, policy makers will simply set a new goal – 3 degrees, 4 degrees, 5 degrees – based neither on science nor politics but on a strange amalgam of the two. On these goals – chosen with a dash of realism and a dose of faith – is overlayed an additional bit of faith that we can actually manage carbon concentrations in the atmosphere through a complex trading regime and new technologies.

All of this is not to say we should give up on the Climate Convention. A universal intergovernmental agreement is a necessary part of tackling climate change. Even if the Bali Roadmap is a tinkering around the edges of an agreement that will not save us, it is better than throwing out the work done so far and starting over.

At the same time we should not assume that such an agreement will ever be adequate, even if all countries could agree on a way forward. Although their grandchildren will inhabit the same earth as yours and mine, certain powerful fossil fuel executives and certain politicians are more afraid of technological and lifestyle change than they are of climate change.

Combatting global warming requires action at all levels – personal habits, power and transportation systems, investment patterns, local, state and national politics and policies. All actions, whether unilateral, multilateral, big or small, are truly welcome, because this is the problem that affects everyone and everything, and for which everyone is, in some small part, responsible.

As visitors to this website know, our part in the effort is to Separate Oil and State and End Oil Aid. Nothing that happened in Bali changed our conviction that this must be done.


  • My dear Kenny – Kyoto does NOT expire, least of all in 2012. Its second phase will start then, nothing less, nothing more. This “expiring” talk is on of the most annnoying things Blair and Bush have done to our minds over the last two years. Let’s resist it. And work towards a much stronger second phase!

  • But the targets established by the Protocol do expire, and, in any case, as you point out, need to be made much more ambitious. Even if the Protocol per se doesn’t expire, what good would it be without new targets?

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