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Hot Air

How the U.S. deflated the global climate talks

By Bill McKibben

DEPENDING on how you spin it, the collapse two weeks ago of the climate negotiations in The Hague, Netherlands, could leave you confident that much progress has been made, despairing that a Bush presidency may doom the future of new talks, or convinced that this is simply a problem too big for human beings to get their heads around.

I think, though, that it really leaves us in pretty much the same position we were in three weeks ago, before the conference began: We're waiting on the weather.

Exhaustive and exhausting negotiations tend to leave all involved with a severe case of tunnel vision. Inside the mammoth meeting hall, everyone came to believe their own hype: that they were on the verge of an agreement that would truly change the way people used energy, and hence kick-start the process of reducing carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere.

Indeed, the Kyoto treaty did represent a kind of triumph of implacable bureaucratic optimism. At each potential breakdown point, someone came up with yet another fix. After six large-scale conferences, the document resembled one of those late-Ptolemaic maps of the universe, with a bewildering variety of epicycles and adjustments added to somehow make the model comport with the real world. There were Clean Development Mechanisms to allow the rich world to purchase easy credits and to buy off the poor world; there were Hot Air provisions and complicated Baskets of Gases; and there were the Carbon Sinks, also known as trees, designed to make the whole package easy on Americans.

That is, instead of a straightforward plan to wean the world from coal and oil and gas, there was a Rube Goldberg machine that attempted to meet every national interest. And it might, just possibly, have worked--that is, it might have provided enough incentives to get the energy industry serious about researching and developing alternative technologies, and those technologies might have taken off so spectacularly that they would have provided us energy junkies with the methadone we seem to require.

But in the end--in the waning hours of Saturday morning--the Europeans decided they couldn't sell this particular contraption at home. It was simply too easy on the Americans, who, arrogantly, had never really believed anyone would call their bluff. The French did, and shortly thereafter the cleaning crew arrived to cart away the tons of thin carbon sinks known as sheets of paper that rose daily like an ever-higher tide.

Even if the Europeans hadn't stood tough, though, the document wouldn't have made it through the U.S. Senate. Not with George W. Bush as president, and not with Al Gore as president. And the reason is simple: The American public still does not believe with the necessary passion that climate change represents a problem serious enough to require any compromises in our way of life.

ONE OF THE IRONIES of the entire global-warming debate is that America--chief contributor to the problem--is geographically situated in such a way that it will be one of the last places to feel the pain. With the exception of Florida (take that, Katherine Harris!) and a few other parts of the Gulf Coast, our shorelines are not especially vulnerable, nothing like Bangladesh or the small island states or the Nile Delta. Sure, we've had some floods and hurricanes, but we're a vast and rich land and we recover easily, at least for now. Drought over one set of fields is usually offset somewhere else in the grain belt. That won't help us much when the temperature really climbs, as every computer model now predicts, but so far the public is not scared enough to make it an issue, something that our politicians instinctively realize.

Europeans care--or at least enough of them care that in a parliamentary system they can exert sufficient pressure to move their governments. Americans don't, not yet.

For those of us who have been working on this issue for a decade or more, it's sometimes hard to imagine that there could be anyone anywhere who does not realize that the freaking earth is coming to an end. But, of course, the guy I sat next to on the airplane home--a perfectly decent engineer who had voted Democratic--greeted the news of where I'd been with only the most casual interest. "Oh yeah, I've heard about that," he said when I mentioned global warming. "So tell me, is that stuff for real or not?" It's a strong indictment of the insider, deal-making, tech-talking American environmental community--and of the Clinton-Gore administration, which blew almost a decade it could have spent educating the citizenry.

The day will come when Americans will be convinced of the reality of climate change--probably the day after a really big hurricane. When that day comes, we will badly need all the ideas that have been patiently hammered out in places like The Hague. But until that day comes, events like the collapse of these talks may be (sadly) less momentous than they seem.


Bill McKibben is the author of 'The End of Nature' and 'Maybe One,' among other books.

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From the December 7-13, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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