The best that can be said of the recently concluded meeting on climate change in Montreal is that the countries that care about global warming did not allow the United States delegation to blow the whole conference to smithereens. Washington was intent on making sure that the conferees required no more of the United States than what it is already doing to restrain greenhouse gas emissions, which amounts to virtually nothing.
At least the Americans' shameful foot-dragging did not bring the entire process to a complete halt, and for this the other industrialized countries, chiefly Britain and Canada, deserve considerable praise. It cannot be easy for America's competitors to move forward with costly steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while the United States refuses to carry its share of the load. Nevertheless, the Europeans and other signatories to the 1997 treaty limiting greenhouse gas emissions - a treaty the Bush administration has rejected - promised to work toward new and more ambitious targets and timetables when the agreement lapses in 2012.
For its part, the Bush administration deserves only censure. No one expected a miraculous conversion. But given the steadily mounting evidence of the present and potential consequences of climate change - disappearing glaciers, melting Arctic ice caps, dying coral reefs, threatened coastlines, increasingly violent hurricanes - one would surely have expected America's negotiators to arrive in Montreal willing to discuss alternatives.
They did not. Instead, the principal negotiators, Paula Dobriansky and Harlan Watson, continued to tout the benefits of an approach that combines voluntary reductions by individual companies with further research into "breakthrough" technologies.
That will not work. While a few companies may decide to proceed on their own, the private sector as a whole will neither create new technologies nor broadly deploy them unless all countries are required to do their share under a regime that combines agreed-upon targets with strong financial incentives for reaching them. To believe that companies will spend heavily to reduce emissions while their competitors are not doing the same is to believe in the tooth fairy.
The Europeans are finding solace in the fact that the Americans - after much kicking and screaming, and after public rebukes by Canada's prime minister and a surprise visitor named Bill Clinton - finally agreed to join informal "nonbinding" discussions that will try to entice developing countries like China and India into the process. It's certainly true that without the developing nations on board, any effort to keep greenhouses gases at manageable levels will be for naught. China, for example, is building coal-fired power plants at a rapid clip and is expected to overtake the United States as the biggest producer of greenhouse gases in 20 years.
But talk is cheap, and nonbinding talk is even cheaper. And talk alone will not get the developing world into the game. Why should India and China make major sacrifices while the United States, in effect, gets a free ride? The battle against global warming will never be won unless America joins it, urgently and enthusiastically. Our grandchildren will look back with anger and astonishment if we fail to do so.
© 2005 New York Times