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Published: Wednesday, 12/19/2007

Conference in Bali marks beginning of much-needed deal

WHAT do you do when you know that the position your country is taking at an international conference is wrong and should not prevail?

That was more or less the position of most Americans watching the representatives of the Bush Administration seeking to obstruct progress toward agreement on worldwide action to curb greenhouse gas emissions at this month's U.N. Climate Change Conference in Bali, Indonesia.

The spirit of the conference turned distinctly and nearly unanimously against the United States. One delegate said that if the United States was not going to cooperate in reaching an agreement, it should at least have the decency to "get out of the way."

Matters became even more complicated when former Vice President Al Gore spoke at the conference, in light of his Oscar-winning movie, An Inconvenient Truth, and his sharing of a Nobel Peace Prize with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for his efforts to inform and sensitize the world to the need for specific, urgent action to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Every delegate at the conference knew that if Mr. Gore had won the 2000 presidential election - or, for purists, if the U.S. Supreme Court had affirmed rather than overturned his 2000 electoral victory - the position of the United States at the Bali conference would have been very different from that held by Paula Dobriansky, undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs. It is worth noting Ms. Dobriansky, the head of the U.S. delegation, was a third-echelon State Department official.

The science of all this, in my mind, is still not entirely clear. The Greenland ice cap is melting for sure but Greenland had arable land as late as the 15th century, so it is possible that global climate change is cyclical and thus very hard to head off. At the same time, the rest of the world and even most Americans, apart from the Bush Administration and its industrial supporters, are steamed about this - no pun intended - and believe that mankind, especially the United States, should do something serious about trying to slow global warming.

I couldn't care less if the beach-front properties are washed away but some of the other results of a rise in sea levels would be catastrophic. Some island nations would simply disappear. And if we thought Katrina trashed New Orleans, that was nothing compared to what will come.

At the very least, the changes will be destructive and expensive to mitigate or adjust to. At worst, the displacement of people and the destruction of basic infrastructure will be cataclysmic.

In the end, it looked like the Bush Administration climbed down a little in the face of substantial international pressure to be reasonable. Ms. Dobriansky agreed that the United States would participate in the coming two years of negotiations that are supposed to result in a treaty by 2009 to succeed the Kyoto Protocol to the Framework Convention on Climate Control, which is set to expire in 2012. The United States remains, of course, the only major industrialized country not to have ratified Kyoto.

Our country is not the only evil force in this drama. China, India, Brazil, South Africa, and other countries, characterized - some dubiously - as "developing countries," had steadfastly held to the position that they were excused from any curbs on their emissions because of their economic status. At Bali they conceded that they, too, would need to agree in the coming negotiations to cut emissions, although they insisted that a more conciliatory position on their part was tied to a more reasonable attitude on the part of the United States.

So what has the Bush Administration been doing all these years? Its most appealing argument is that remedies will have costs. Meeting benchmarks and respecting caps on emissions will cut into industry profits.

That is true, but it cost industry money to clean up Pittsburgh. It would be cheaper to just flush our toilets right into the three rivers. But we don't. Pollution - carbon dioxide emissions - are not good for the environment we inhabit and, besides, don't we need to be prepared to pay some kind of a price to do something about greenhouse gases and global warming?

It is also clearly the case that some interesting technological innovations could come out of industry efforts to maintain production but with a greener environmental signature.

In the end, the U.S. delegation made the right decision. The game is not over, however. The negotiations for a treaty will now begin. And whatever the White House's intentions, there will be a change of U.S. administration before Kyoto expires. Bali is the beginnings of a much-needed deal.



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