Progress on Climate Issues -- With or Without Bush

Monday's events at the United Nations -- the climate-related ones, not the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spectacle -- were downplayed in most of the major media coverage as having little significance. Time called it "hot air," and the Guardian UK bemoaned the events as simply more talk as the world stumbles ever-closer toward a climate disaster. But the summit, which kicked off a week of climate-change talks here in the United States, was a notable landmark on what has been, and will continue to be, a long road to a comprehensive and binding international treaty on climate change.

The summit came just before the official start of the 62nd U.N. General Assembly, and was intended to create a common language among nations on climate change as they prepare to dispatch negotiators to Bali, Indonesia, in December, where they will begin hashing out a post-Kyoto plan. The Kyoto Protocol will run its course by 2012, and it's likely that a new deal will take two years to formulate and two more to ratify. This week's discussion aimed to up the political ante in the hopes that the Bali meeting will produce a successor to Kyoto rather than more talk. It also brought together U.S. champions of the climate debate (like Al Gore and Arnold Schwarzenegger), world leaders from tiny island nations facing existential crises, and representatives from civil society (like Sheila Watt-Cloutier, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council), to send home the message that action is both necessary and possible.

This was the first time 80 heads of state and high-level representatives from more than 150 nations gathered for the express purpose of discussing climate change. The presence of such official representation was an indicator that this issue has become a top priority not just for environmental ministers, but for all of government. Officials have finally grasped that movement forward on a new pact is unavoidable, for reasons that surpass pure environmentalism: Without action, climate change threatens to undermine all efforts to alleviate poverty, ensure national security, protect the agricultural sector, and create economic growth. The strong showing from heads of state also demonstrated a firm belief among nations that the U.N. is the ideal forum to work out this new pact, despite Bush sending Condoleezza Rice to the summit in his stead and his plans to hold outside strategy sessions.

"This event has sent a powerful political signal to the world, and to the Bali conference, that there is the will and the determination at the highest level to break with the past and act decisively," said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the summit. "Our goal must be nothing short of a real breakthrough."

Most of the representatives came forth at the summit with calls for binding emission-reduction targets, a price on carbon, increased emphasis on adaptation strategies and financing plans, and a pact that takes into account the needs of the developing nations. While some called for exemption for developing countries, more emphasis was placed on the need for a sliding-scale system that doesn't hold everyone to the same goals, at least not immediately, but at the same time doesn't let less-developed nations off the hook for cuts.

The summit built on momentum generated by a successful climate negotiation in Montreal last week, where 191 countries agreed to not only improve upon the 20-year-old Montreal Protocol, but pledged to move up the target dates for phasing out ozone-depleting chemicals by 10 years. Montreal has been heralded as the most successful environmental treaty to date, mostly because of its flexibility. The new protocol calls for a phase-out of the production and use of hydrochlorofluorocarbons, found predominantly in refrigerants and aerosols, by 2020 for developed countries and by 2030 for developing nations -- and for developed countries to provide technical and financial assistance to meet those goals. The cuts are expected to preserve the ozone layer and curb climate change, keeping billions of tons of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. Both the U.S. and China are on board with Montreal, which offers more than a little hope about what is possible at the meeting in Bali.

Though Bush did not attend the U.N. summit, he did make it to New York for a special closed-door dinner meeting with 20 world leaders, and in D.C. today and tomorrow he is meeting with leaders of the 16 biggest emitters, a move that many think is an attempt to undermine the U.N. process. Of course, it remains to be seen what Bush will endorse at these gatherings, and in the planned meetings with these leaders throughout the next year. Going into this week, he has set a precedent of stating purely aspirational goals, resisting binding targets, enforcement mechanisms, or penalties for non-compliance. Bush has instead called for voluntary programs for emissions reductions, maintaining that mandatory cuts would damage the American economy and that each nation should determine its own goals. He is expected to hold that line this week as he meets with representatives from the G8 as well as Indonesia, Brazil, China, and India.

While most leaders at the U.N. event publicly put a positive spin on Bush's meetings, saying that they are meant to supplement the U.N. process and create a venue for major emitters to strategize, there remains much suspicion among world leaders that Bush's six years of iciness toward the Kyoto Protocol aren't going to melt away easily for a pact that by necessity will be much firmer.

The tenor in D.C. has been that Bush's alternative meetings are just a means to help run out the clock on his presidency, leaving the real work to a successor. That was how Rep. Ed Markey, chair of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, characterized this week's events at a roundtable discussion with reporters last week. And the cynicism is not without merit -- the process for these alternative deliberations that Bush has outlined includes a series of talks slated through the end of 2008, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's presentation at the U.N. on Monday gave no indication that they'd be changing their tune on cuts anytime soon.

But even without the Bush administration climbing on board, the U.N. summit created positive momentum that continued U.S. resistance isn't likely to subvert. "What matters is that governments finally get around the table in Bali and negotiate a deal, or at least get on a path to negotiate a deal within one or two years," said Nick Nuttall, spokesperson for the United Nations Environment Program. "You can say what you [will] about America, but the momentum in terms of people wanting to talk, wanting to discuss it, to say how can we do this, what would a deal look like, is quite awesome in 2007."

As Monday's summit showed, the consensus among world leaders has moved beyond merely accepting the reality of climate change and to the firm agreement that a new pact must be in line before Kyoto expires in 2012. Ban has made this a top priority under his leadership, and Bush's alternative path isn't likely to undermine the efforts of the rest of the world, who also realize that the Bush administration is running out the clock. They, like the rest of us, are waiting for the elections of 2008 for the United States to get on board, realizing that Bush's posturing will be just that. The European Union, Japan, and a remarkable majority of the nations represented at the U.N. on Monday agreed to 50 percent cuts by 2050. These leaders aren't likely to let whatever comes out of Bali be any weaker than their standards at home, and they realize that voluntary cuts aren't going to achieve the 2050 emissions-reduction goals that scientists say we need to reach to prevent major damage.

"To think that you can control greenhouse gas emissions with voluntary targets is like trying to have a voluntary speed limit on roads," said John Ashton, the United Kingdom Foreign Secretary's special representative for climate change, in a telephone interview before the talks in Washington began. "They don't work."