Washington in the Crosshairs at Bali Climate Conference

BANGKOK - The U.S. government of President George W. Bush is heading for a rough ride during a major international conference about the planet's future that began this week on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.

The most visible pressure is expected to come from environmental groups assembled at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which runs from Dec. 3-14. The activists' choice to single out Washington was made easier on the first day of the summit, with an announcement by Australia's newly-elected government that it was breaking ranks with the United States and joining nations that had ratified the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

" Friends of the Earth and other NGO (non-governmental organization) activists in Bali will highlight the complete isolation of the Bush administration," said Elizabeth Bast, international policy analyst for the U.S. office of Friends of the Earth, a global environmental lobby group. "The administration is standing alone, not only from the rest of the world as the sole country failing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, but also from the American people, who are increasingly calling for dramatic and binding (greenhouse gas) emission reductions."

"Instead of fully engaging with the U.N. process, the administration is focusing its efforts on creating other processes," she added in an e-mail interview from Nusa Dua, the conference venue. "The administration's intransigence should not be allowed to stand in the way."

The emerging domestic divide between the Bush administration's rigid views on climate change and the rest of the United States was highlighted in a report released by the National Environmental Trust (NET), a Washington D.C.-based environmental lobby group, on the eve of the Bali meeting.

"Serious proposals to limit greenhouse gas emissions are gaining momentum in the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency must promulgate greenhouse gas regulations," notes the study, 'Taking Responsibility'.

That Washington has not budged on the international front was clear during the opening day of the U.N. conference, which has attracted some 10,000 government officials, delegates from international organizations, private sector representatives and activists. There was hardly a hint that the U.S. government was expected to bridge the divide on the crucial issue of greenhouse gas (GhG) emissions spelled out in the Kyoto Protocol.

The Bush administration has refused to ratify the protocol due to language that calls on 36 industrialized countries to impose mandatory cuts on GhGs, which have contributed to global warming. The target set was a five percent cut below the 1990 GhG emission rates by 2012.

Washington favors voluntary cuts on emissions, despite the U.S. being a leading emitter of these heat-trapping gases that are expected to wreak havoc across the planet in coming years. All 27 member nations of the European Union, on the other hand, have embraced the binding commitments of the protocol and have introduced plans to cut GhG emissions by 20 percent by 2020.

"The administration is hoping to package its old voluntary policies by bringing some new faces to Bali to sell them," Angela Anderson, director of NET's climate program, said in an e-mail interview from Nusa Dua. "They are proposing ideas that were wisely rejected at (the 1992 U.N. summit in) Rio (de Janeiro) as unworkable."

"The U.S. claims it wants to be constructive, so we hope that they continue to participate in the UNFCCC discussions on adaptation and deforestation and stay out of the discussion of (GhG) emissions ranges that is taking place among the Kyoto signatories," she added. "The U.S. should be held responsible for trying to derail the mitigation discussion if that's what they do."

The UNFCCC, which was signed by 192 countries at the Rio summit, called for voluntary goals to curb the emission of GhGs as a way to mitigate the earth's rising temperature. But lack of progress on this front prompted the need, five years later, for the Kyoto Protocol, which set specific limits on GhG emission reductions and singled out the industrialized nations to take the lead in this.

The Bali summit is expected to secure commitments to cut GhGs after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. U.N. officials hope that negotiations for the post-Kyoto agreement will take two years to finalize, thus giving countries sufficient time to ratify the agreement for a smooth transition.

This challenge was highlighted by Rachmat Witoelar, Indonesia's environment minister and the president of the current conference, on the opening day.

"The scientific debate has been conclusively laid to rest by the latest scientific findings from the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): climate change is unequivocal and accelerating," he said. "Whilst the launch of negotiations and a clear deadline of 2009 to end the negotiations would constitute a breakthrough, anything short of that would constitute a failure."

In their report, the global network of scientists who are members of the IPCC warned that the level of GhGs emitted into the atmosphere must stabilize by 2015 and then start declining to avoid an environmental catastrophe. Failure, they added, would lead to the deaths of millions of people, mostly in the developing world, from extreme climate conditions ranging from a rise in sea levels to natural disasters and droughts.

Little wonder, then, why environmentalists fear Washington's position in Bali may put a brake on the negotiations and help make the grim forecast of the IPCC a reality.

"All nations have a vital self-interest in getting the next round (of the protocol) going, and they shouldn't let the same old story from the U.S. be an excuse for a weak start to the post-2012 negotiations," said Anderson of NET.

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