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Down and Out in Bali: U.N. Climate Change Negotiations So Far Lack Urgency

[This post originally appeared on the Center for Global Development's "Views from the Center" blog.] I’m in one of the world’s most beautiful places, and I am seriously bummed. Few people had much in the way of expectations for the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Bali — its purpose is to simply set the terms for negotiations over the next two years — but I had retained a modicum of hope. I was especially hopeful that, in light of the IPCC’s synthesis report and mountains of observational evidence of rapidly changing climate, we would see a new sense of urgency in the talks. Perhaps not tangible results, but at least some exigency in the ether. Now we have some sense of the document that is likely to emerge from the conference, however, I don’t see much reason to be hopeful and a lot of reasons to be seriously concerned.

The draft statement will undergo revision this week, but that process will likely result in a document with three general points: 1) Rich countries, but not poor countries, should commit to legally-binding greenhouse gas reductions. 2) Rich countries should put up more money to help poor countries adapt to coming climate change. 3) Let’s agree now to tentatively agree to a (tentative) post-Kyoto treaty sometime (tentatively) in 2009.

What’s a good antonym for urgency? I vote for negligence, because that’s effectively what the U.N. process is generating. Don’t get me wrong. Adaptation is needed under any scenario, and the North should finance much of it (about $50 billion annually, according to Oxfam). But the fact that adaptation is flying off the lips of every developing world delegate — as if it were a substitute for the emission cut targets they collectively refuse — tells us something about the inadequate sense of urgency and limited appreciation for the risks posed by climate change.

Let’s face the facts: We have already ensured that human societies will be playing the climate adaptation game for centuries to come. Whether that adaptation is slow and manageable or swift and chaotic depends upon our one opportunity to get emission cuts reasonably right in the short-term, and that simply cannot happen without real and binding limits for every major economy. Even modest growth in per capita emissions in populous countries like China and India will negate significant cuts in the rich world. The Bush administration is wrong to use this fact as an excuse for American inaction and delay, but the arithmetic stands.

For those in the development community — many of whom are here in Bali and, perhaps, inclined to sympathize with the developing world position — it may help to ask a similar question in a different context. What would we give to go back to the Congo’s jungles and snuff out HIV before it spread around the world? How many of us, if given the choice, would choose adaptation — millions dead and mountains of medicine to simply keep people alive — over prevention? The human costs of rapid climate change will dwarf anything HIV could ever generate, and yet, when given the opportunity to take preventive action, some act as if the decision is a nuanced one. If developing societies believe climate adaptation can substitute for emission cuts, they will soon find themselves in a pitched battle against the laws of chemistry and physics. I think we know who will bend first.

I do not mean to present a false choice. The truth is that both short-term adaptation and serious, binding, and global emissions reductions can and should happen, but that arrangement (the “Grand Bargain” between North and South that must eventually come) is nowhere to be seen. Indeed, by refusing to accept the premise of legally binding emissions cuts, developing country governments are preventing the needed discussion from even beginning.

No doubt, the complete lack of leadership on the part of the Bush administration deserves much of the blame for the impasse. But equally disconcerting is the paradoxical fervor with which the developing countries — especially India and China — continue to push for a global South of more or less uncontrolled greenhouse gases. It is clear that they will suffer first and worst in such a world and face only greater challenges with time. The sad truth is, emission cuts in the North alone are not enough to avert a climate crisis, as David Wheeler and I showed in our recent CGD working paper: Another Inconvenient Truth.

Even the emission targets that are bandied about in passing are woefully inadequate given the state of the atmosphere. For example, the most recent UNDP Human Development Report, which plainly states that climate change “may be the gravest threat ever to have faced humanity,” recommended that developing countries commit to emission reductions of 20% from 1990 levels by 2050 as part of a global effort to reduce emissions by 50% over the same period. That recommendation was roundly dismissed by China and India as unacceptable.

And yet, the reductions advocated in the report are incredibly modest in terms of their climatic benefit. A 50% reduction in global emissions by 2050 is expected to reduce the risk of “dangerous climate change” (more than 2 degrees Celsius warming over pre-industrial times) to merely a 50/50 proposition — just the flip of a coin. And the definition of “catastrophic” used here doesn’t include the possibility of tipping points and temperature thresholds that, if triggered, could produce run-away climatic changes regardless of human efforts to stem the tide.

All of this makes me wonder: Are we, as a species, even close to appreciating the probabilities we’re playing with? The state of the discussion here in Bali suggests we are not. Perhaps the arrival of some big names (Nobel Laureate Al Gore, for example) will serve to shake things up a bit and force some concessions. But, until I see a consensus document that suggests otherwise, I remain seriously bummed.

[Note: I am not a complete downer. More to come later this week on some of the new and encouraging research that has emerged at the conference.]

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I enjoyed reading this great though sobering message from Bali. What this tells me is that the Global North, and the U.S. especially, has to start being far more serious about some of the commitments it has already signed onto, if countries in the developing world are ever to enter a mutual pact for planetary survival.
The UN Millenium Development Goals, agreed to by all countries in the world, call for (among other things) addressing the least developed countries’ special needs, such as: tariff- and quota-free access for their exports; debt relief for heavily indebted poor countries; cancellation of official bilateral debt; and more generous official development assistance for poor countries. Developed countries need to start delivering better on these commitments and other existing commitments, and include curbing carbon emissions as part of the development bargain.
As one who lived in Indonesia for a few years, I know that the typical greeting you say to someone is not “How are you?” but “Mau ke mana?” meaning “Where are you going?” Every participant in Bali should ask him or herself where are we going: where are we headed when the evidence of looming disaster is there but we act out of denial.
To read the news from here in Seattle, one gets the impression that many people in Bali are content to agree on a two-year period in the not so distant future only to then agree again on some (again) watered down targets. Now that would be a bummer if we let that happen. Wake up. Mau ke mana?


I am a planner in NY State, and it is amazing how resistant people are to change, such as not wanting wind energy because of aeshetics…apparently ignoring the telephone poles and polluting coal plants…and the fact that only 10% of energy from coal gets to their houses….apparently, people would rather have a view, while it is not yet too polluted to see any scenery…every day, people here drive bigger and bigger SUVS, I thought attitudes would be different here than in the South…I use 100% wind and solar energy now…which should actually be less expensive than coal/oil…IF it were subsidized to the same extent…as coal/oil….and if more people demand it…if your state does not yet have a Renewable Portfolio Standards mandate, demand it!!!!Bush just vetoed the energy bill because it would reduce taxpayer subsidies for coal/oil..this is just extremely evil, ignorant, blatantly in denial, and an assault on human rights….”compassionate conservatives” or the GOP cannot spin this…..why don’t Dems say by keeping us dependent on foreign oil, the GOP is helping the enemy…and hurting our country’s future???…that is not a lie, it is a fact!!!!!

If wind/solar/geothermal/hydro were subsidized like coal/oil, they would be our major source of energy….if U.S. cannot even compromise in Bali because of Bush policies, it will be too late to stop some of the effects of climate change that we are already seeing and it is very sad….when I look around and talk to regular folks, some people, mostly older, still can have the ability to doubt it is occurring…or argue about man’s role….and do not even care about their carbon footprint….it can make one very apathetic and depressed to see humans not even care about the rest of the human race….


I would say the major obstable comes from the US, instead of the developing countries like China and India.

If no actions from the US, as you suggested, no urgency, we may have a longer way to go than we expected, which means, more negative effects will impose even greater barriers to the fight against the climate change.