Update - July 23, 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 Pew Center on Global Climate Change. This column is being written in cooperation with Grist Magazine.

Monday, 23 Jul 2001

EN ROUTE FROM BONN, Germany    I was working the cell phone from the backseat of a Mercedes cab rushing to the airport a few hours ago, and, suddenly, I was struck by the spirit of the scene I'd just left behind.

 Jan Pronk
Jan Pronk sealed the deal.
Photo: Courtesy of IISD.
 

Moments earlier, a beaming Jan Pronk had slammed down his gavel to seal a deal keeping the Kyoto Protocol alive. A hall full of exhausted delegates (some had haggled through the night, while others draped the floor and couches of the Maritim's smoky corridors) exploded in applause. Against all odds, Pronk's idiosyncratic brand of diplomacy had managed to move nearly the entire world forward in the fight against global warming.

I couldn't help but think back eight months to a very different scene in The Hague, where Pronk's earlier efforts as conference chair had ended in acrimony and despair. I was with the U.S. delegation at the time, and while virtually no one was faultless in the failure there, I hadn't felt particularly proud about the part we had played.

The events of the intervening months have left me more troubled than ever about America's "contribution" to what so obviously must be a global effort to stem a global threat. The events of this morning provide a powerful balm. Despite my government's refusal to lead or even go along, the rest of the world, for now at least, has resolved to push ahead.

In the plenary hall, ministers were still taking turns congratulating one another and reciting the many challenges yet ahead. But I couldn't stay. It's my son's birthday tomorrow and I don't want to miss it. So I grabbed a cab and dialed reporters while cruising down the Autobahn for Cologne, lending my voice, and that of my organization, to the worldwide declaration of success.

Now I'm 35,000 feet over the northern Atlantic, halfway home. Out the window of the 747, I can see the gleaming glaciers of Greenland, so vast and remote, and seemingly impervious. Looking down, I wonder how much they've retreated since we began tinkering with the chemistry of our atmosphere. I'm reminded that in the race against global warming, we've barely begun.

But can we trust you?  
Outside, protesters are happy but skeptical.
Photo: Courtesy of IISD.
 

Kyoto, the imperfect instrument that might finally mobilize our efforts, remains a work in progress. Nations drew the basic outlines four years ago in Japan. In Bonn, they filled in the broad brushstrokes. Later this year in Marrakech, they must add the finishing touches. The goal is ratification by enough countries to put the treaty into effect by the time of Rio+10, a major environmental summit late next year in Johannesburg.

Given the extraordinary array of complexities and competing interests, getting Kyoto up and running would be a remarkable achievement. But it would be only a start. Kyoto promises just a fraction of the reduction in greenhouse gases that ultimately is needed to avert climatic disaster. And it offers no real strategy to bring on board the developing countries, whose growing prosperity and populations could completely overwhelm even the most strenuous efforts of industrialized nations.

There remains also, of course, the matter of the U.S. There are all sorts of ironies in today's outcome in Bonn. This is a deal that, in most major respects, would have satisfied U.S. negotiators in The Hague. In other words, now that the U.S. has renounced Kyoto, other nations are willing to make the concessions that conceivably might have kept us on board.

Although some of those who counseled President Bush to reject Kyoto no doubt hoped to deliver the treaty a fatal blow, their advice may well have had the opposite effect. In unilaterally proclaiming its own response -- an emphatic no -- the administration cast in stark relief a legitimate question: Is Kyoto the way forward? With the taste of failure still fresh from The Hague, and with a decade of diplomacy at stake, the rest of the world decided the only possible answer was an equally emphatic yes.

Fortunately, the 178 countries that backed the treaty did it in a way that leaves the door open for the U.S. to come back. The particulars of how that could be done may be negotiated in due time. What's more critical right now is that the U.S. begin genuine efforts at home to curb its soaring greenhouse gas emissions. Here, too, the administration appears to have inadvertently created new momentum. All sorts of bills are being drafted on Capitol Hill, and the prospects for action have never been better. Who knows? By this time next year, Bush might be signing legislation that finally puts the U.S. on the path to climate protection.

My son Ty was barely a year old when I flew off to Rio to cover the Earth Summit, the conference where the international effort against global warming first took shape. Tomorrow, he turns 10. We've made some headway. I'd like to think that by the time he turns 20, we'll have made a whole lot more.