Update - July 17, 2001

Elliot Diringer, a veteran environmental journalist and a deputy press secretary in the Clinton White House, is now director of international strategies at the Center. This column is being written in cooperation with Grist Magazine.

Tuesday, 17 Jul 2001

BONN, Germany    It's a fair bet that many in the diplomatic horde converging on Bonn for the latest round of global warming talks would rather be somewhere else.

Climate Change? Social Change! 
Banner at a protest outside yesterday's talks.
Photo: Independent Media Center.

In the past when they've gathered, the government negotiators charged with forging an international strategy against climate change could usually expect to produce enough forward movement, however incremental, to go home declaring success. Until, that is, the unsettling impasse last fall in The Hague, where tough decisions were due but longstanding differences proved too difficult to bridge.

This time around, the outlook is gloomier still. Indeed, "success" in Bonn might best be defined as averting an outright collapse.

Nearly a decade ago, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, nations committed themselves ever so tentatively to the fight against global warming. I covered that heady affair as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. Five years later, having just joined the environmental policy office in the Clinton White House, I was a U.S. delegate to the historic Kyoto conference, where industrialized nations went the next step, pledging to finally start taking real steps.

Now I come as an "observer" representing the Center, an independent nonprofit that is part think tank, part catalyst for corporate action against global warming. My first observation is not a cheery one: Nearly a decade after the search began, the formula for mobilizing a genuine global effort against our greatest environmental threat seems as elusive as ever. Apart from the raft of high-stakes issues still dividing countries, the world's largest emitter, the U.S., has now renounced the Kyoto Protocol, declaring it "fatally flawed."

The official conference agenda calls for picking up where The Hague left off. Negotiators will again spend long, tedious hours haggling over the issues that bedeviled them last time: Should nations be forced to achieve most of their emission reductions at home, or be free to purchase all the emission credits they want from countries with spare ones to sell? How much credit should be allowed for carbon sucked from the atmosphere by forests and farms? How much money will rich countries provide poor countries to help them cope with and combat global warming?

But the real questions looming over the resumed Sixth Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change are more basic: With the United States now refusing to go along, is the rest of the industrialized world still prepared to continue down the path charted in Kyoto? And if not, what is the alternative?

  Bonn critical mass
Dreary prognosis, colorful critical mass ride in Bonn.
Photo: Independent Media Center.

Chances are that when weary negotiators head home 10 days from now, those questions will be left begging. Barring an unexpected turn of events -- say, a sudden breakthrough when G8 leaders gather later this week in Genoa -- there will be no decisive outcome to COP6. Europeans will be unable to persuade Japan to join them right now in an unequivocal embrace of Kyoto, providing the critical threshold to put the treaty into effect. Ministers will speechify and take stock, then jet back to their capitals to weigh options for the next round, this October in Marrakech.

This dreary prognosis, particularly when set against the growing scientific certainty that global warming is already upon us, might all too easily be cause for despair. I prefer the long view.

An effective global response to climate change would, if mounted, be the largest experiment in directed change ever undertaken. It would shape countless policies, investment decisions, and technology choices for decades to come, with the goal of gradually weaning industrialized nations from fossil fuels, and keeping the booming developing world from becoming ever more dependent. The challenge is unprecedented, and getting 180 nations to agree on the best way to meet it may well be the greatest diplomatic feat ever attempted.

For all the recent setbacks, there are in fact encouraging signs. Even without a global framework, many nations, both developed and developing, have begun taking concrete steps to curb their emissions. The public and press are more attuned than ever. And the corporate community, which at the time of the Kyoto in 1997 was still in deep denial, is coming around. Major companies like those we work with at Pew are taking, and demanding, real action.

But this momentum, however modest, will be lost unless nations commit themselves to mandatory action with legally binding targets. That was the premise going into Kyoto, and for all the negotiations since. But in rejecting the Kyoto, the U.S., for now at least, rejected that basic premise as well.

Japan still holds out hope of luring the Bush administration back to Kyoto; the European Union favors forging ahead with or without the U.S. The U.S., having offered no alternative or even saying when it might, has promised not to stand in the way. "If other countries want to shoot themselves in the foot," one American official told me, "they're welcome to."

Unless the U.S. offers up a credible alternative, and does it soon, the best course may well be for other countries to settle outstanding differences and make Kyoto real. These two weeks in the city by the Rhine will, hopefully, give us a clearer picture of whether that's possible -- or whether it's time to contemplate other paths forward.

Either way, our ultimate goal must remain the same: an international agreement that includes all the major emitters and delivers real reductions in greenhouse gases at a price the world can afford. It's a tall order. But it's why we're here.