Thursday, December 20, 2007

Bali: Success or Failure?

Much has been written over the last week about the UN Climate Congress, which went into overtime last week in Indonesia. The inability of 192 nations to agree to hard targets for greenhouse gas reductions has caused some commentators to despair. And one could, understandably, read the outcome as collective denial.

Certainly, the Harper government, for all its happy talk about its good intentions, continues to ape the position of the Bush Administration because, I suspect, the Prime Minister -- trained in Friedmanesque economics -- believes that any measures which apply brakes to an unfettered economy are clear and present dangers.

Most Canadian commentators found Environment Minister John Baird's performance at the conference embarrassing. And, given Canada's past environmental commitments -- which admittedly were not kept -- the Harperites refusal to accept hard targets for greenhouse gas reductions left several foreign observers flummoxed. Writing in the Toronto Star, Chantal Hebert referred to Mr. Baird's appearance as a Bali Flop: "For all intents and purposes, the Bali meeting was a multi- day communications disaster for the Harper regime. It set back a year of conservative efforts to re-brand the party on climate change and confirmed the issue as the government's Achilles heal."

But for Canadian commentators whose perspective was broader than Canada's role at the conference, there were signs of hope. Also writing in The Star, Richard Gwyn focused on the last minute concession by the United States to join the discussion -- after George W. Bush has gone back to Texas: "Almost any U.S. President, let alone Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, is bound to be more open and conciliatory," wrote Gwyn. More importantly, "at Bali, China and India hid behind the U.S. While it was being bashed, they could remain silent. The late U.S. concession, though, put the spotlight on these 'late polluters' and other comparable if smaller ones such as Indonesia and Brazil."

What or who was responsible for the change in American direction? Clearly, for the first time, the Bush administration faced a full court press from the international community. From the mighty to the humble, the message was the same. As a delegate from Papua, New Guinea told the American delegation: "If you're not willing to lead, please get out of the way." But, according to Gwynne Dyer, it was Al Gore who prevented the conference from running aground. Gore told the conference: "Over the next two years the United States is going to be somewhere it is not now. . . there will be a new (presidential) inauguration in the United States." So the conference removed the call for hard emissions targets and bought Gore's argument that there was hope -- if nations kept talking and reached an agreement by 2009.

"So don't believe the cynics," wrote Dyer,"who say that public opinion does not matter. A large majority of Americans are far ahead of their government in their desire to see effective action on climate change, and the Bush Administration is fighting a delaying action." One wonders if the Harper government has got the message. Bali ended with an agreement to keep talking -- and the knowledge that the biggest polluters are now inside the tent. No one ever claimed that it was going to be easy to get 192 nations to agree to save the planet. But an agreement is within our grasp.

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