Update - July 18, 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.

Wednesday, 18 Jul 2001

BONN, Germany    I can say from experience that anyone representing the U.S. at international climate negotiations has to be prepared to be cast as the villain -- sometimes unfairly, but not always without cause.

Being the world's largest climate polluter makes the U.S. an easy target. Over a decade of negotiations, it has also put the U.S. at the center of action, whether blocking binding emission targets when the first climate treaty was forged in 1992 in Rio, or contributing some of the best features of the Kyoto Protocol when it was negotiated five years later.

But as countries meet here in Bonn to try again at making Kyoto real, the dynamic is very different. The U.S. continues to cast a long shadow, and draw blame. But it's not nearly the presence it once was.

 Bush protest
Activists in Bonn poke fun at the Bush administration.
Photo: Greenpeace.

The big difference, of course, is the Bush administration's renunciation of the Kyoto Protocol. As the self-declared pooper at this latest Kyoto party, the United States is wisely keeping a lower profile. It is fielding a much smaller delegation than in the past and has dispensed with daily press briefings. Still, as negotiators haggle behind closed doors, American diplomats are not simply sitting on the sidelines.

Despite rejecting Kyoto, the U.S. remains a party to the Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiated (and signed by George Bush the Elder) in Rio -- the foundation for all the bargaining that has taken place since. And the negotiating agenda here actually is a mix of "Convention" issues and others relating specifically to Kyoto. U.S. negotiators are engaging directly on the former, while approaching the latter a bit more gingerly.

The Convention issues relate largely to developing countries and how the developed countries will deliver the technology and financial assistance promised them in Rio. Negotiators have just started on the thorniest of those issues -- a proposal for industrialized countries to provide developing countries with $1 billion a year in new aid. The U.S. would pay roughly 40 percent (its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions in 1990), a sum it's not about to fork over.

On the Kyoto issues, the U.S. has promised it's not here to obstruct. But U.S. negotiators are speaking up, sometimes forcefully, when they feel it's necessary to "protect U.S. interests." They define these interests largely as guarding against legal precedents that could affect future treaties on other matters. For instance, the U.S. opposed a proposal that would give developing countries a majority of seats on the board overseeing Kyoto enforcement, fearing it could serve as a model for future bodies.

This highly selective approach to negotiating has left traditional U.S. allies frustrated. The U.S. customarily negotiates as a bloc with other "Umbrella Group" countries -- Japan, Canada, Australia and other industrialized nations outside the European Union. Without the full engagement of its biggest partner, the group is now less coordinated and, consequently, wields less clout.

"One of our biggest problems right now," complained a Canadian delegate, "is that the most important member of the Umbrella Group is only there part-time."

Many in industry also miss a stronger U.S. voice. Companies that may be affected by Kyoto whether or not the U.S. is a party -- for instance, those operating or competing abroad -- have in the past counted on the U.S. to ensure that the treaty's rules would be reasonable. Some industry representatives meeting with the U.S. delegation last night urged it to get more engaged on issues like emissions trading and carbon sequestration. "I don't understand why we're just sitting there quietly," one representative said testily.

"The president has made clear that the United States does not support the Kyoto Protocol," responded a lead U.S. negotiator, "and we are not going to be dragged back into it." Besides, he added, when it comes to shaping a treaty, an avowed non-party is not likely to have much credibility with other countries.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, worry that the U.S. may be all too engaged. Watching for bad precedents, they fear, will prove to be legalistic cover for a stealth attack on Kyoto. "It gives them carte-blanche to try to block anything they see fit," said Kailee Kreider of the National Environmental Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group.

Asked by the press today about the U.S. role, conference Chair Jan Pronk voiced no complaints. "The United States is not -- I repeat not -- obstructing," he said. "They are constructively participating in the negotiations." Still, the divisions among other countries remain deep and numerous. So little headway was made in the first two days that Pronk canceled an open plenary session Tuesday night in which negotiators were to report on their closed-door talks.

Ultimately, how the U.S. behaves here on nitty-gritty issues may have little bearing on whether the international community can mount an effective response to climate change. Kyoto's fate will likely remain an open question at least until the next round, this October in Marrakech. Hopefully by then, the U.S. will have told the rest of the world how it would like to proceed, and other nations can decide whether to join it, stick with Kyoto, or find another way forward.

U.S. negotiators may never be able to shake the role of villain. But maybe by the time of Marrakech, they'll at least be ready to play.