The Playbook for Bali

05/25/2011 12:20 pm ET
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

The playbook is taking shape, and this is not going to be a "Kumbaya" moment on climate change. At the same time, in the four remaining days, there is a decent shot that some important groundwork will be laid. The Bush Administration, of course, is playing delay -- trying to shift the focus of the conversation away from U.N.-style, everyone-has-a-voice negotiated agreements like Kyoto and towards "let the big guys set their own agenda" voluntary coalitions of the major carbon polluters, leaving much of the world out in the -- well, heat, I guess.

The Administration has moved smoothly from denial to despair (the other two "D" words, along with delay). Even in the run-up to the conference, John Marburger, the Director of the White House Science office, claimed that the target of preventing Earth from warming more than two degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, "is going to be a very difficult one to achieve." Besides, he said, what really matters are regional events (like drought in the southeast and the collapse of northern Alaska into the Arctic ocean for example). But, needless to say, there is only one world atmosphere, and if you want to minimize regional catastrophes, then you have to limit overall greenhouse pollution. The 3.6 degrees goal is a way of measuring our commitment -- or Bush's lack of commitment -- to avoiding catastrophe. And remember: Only a few months ago, Bush was still claiming that maybe global warming wasn't even real.

China and India are pushing back hard against new calls from both the U.N. Development Program and the International Energy Agency that they should step up to the table and commit to a less carbonized form of economic growth. Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy Chairman of New Delhi's Planning Commission, blasted the report for failing to take into account the historical disparity in emissions from Europe and the U.S. and a country like India. And China, too, rejected the calls, although the Chinese response was more modulated, emphasizing the need for any commitments by China to be linked to financial and technical assistance from the industrial world. "Only when I know what technology I have can I calculate how much I can reduce emissions; only when I have funding assurances," said Gao Guangsheng of China's Development Commission.

But this all got weirder here this morning, when U.S. negotiator Harlan Watson said it was "premature" to decide that major emission reductions would be needed from industrial nations. "We don't want to start out with numbers," Watson told a news conference, adding that the 25 to 40 percent range was based on "many uncertainties" and a small number of scientific studies by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the Nobel Peace Prize winner). But, of course, if it is almost impossible already to stabilize the climate, as Marburger said, then waiting two years to do anything is, in fact, the counsel of despair.

The U.S. is fighting the concept that, as Sir Nicholas Stern, the British economist whose report is one of the fundamental underpinnings of the policy conversation here put it, "now the rich must pay." Joining that fight, it appears, is the Conservative government in Canada. And one of the two biggest problems with the pending Senate Global Warming bill is that in giving so many carbon permits away, as Europe did under Kyoto, it bribes the existing carbon polluters instead of generating funds that can be used for low carbon futures for the third world. The Japanese are being very cautious, trying to see if they can move the dialogue along without creating a deep split within the conference.

But there is tremendous excitement here at the fact that Barbara Boxer's bill was passed by the Senate Environment Committee, as well as an increasing awareness that with more than 700 "Cool Cities" and half the states having joined regional carbon-reduction compacts, America is moving even if the Bush Administration is not. And one of the big mistakes in Kyoto -- to treat halting deforestation differently than promoting reforestation -- is very likely to get rectified. Stern points out that for only $10-15 billion a year, global deforestation rates could be halved, which by itself would reduce CO2 emissions by 10 percent.

My guess is that we still don't emerge with a solid funding mechanism to deal with this huge opportunity -- just including deforestation in the existing "clean development mechanism" won't begin to do the job. We need some serious global commitment to ending the illegal timber trade and paying all rainforest nations annual rent for the carbon they are storing for the rest of us. But getting the issues on the table will tee them up for a post-Bush world in which, if public pressure continues to build, we will finally see climate chaos for what Stern calls it -- the greatest market failure in human history, but one we can fix through intelligent redesign of the global energy economy.