The Bali summit: The US is trying to sound constructive at the latest climate talks, but its aim is to put the boot in
Alongside the more familiar themes here at the Bali climate talks are some quite new ones. Perhaps the most surprising is the apparent constructive cooperation of the Bush administration. Unlike previous climate negotiations I have attended, at this one the Americans say they want a deal, that they want to talk and that new negotiations should begin under the auspices of the United Nations climate change agreement. What a change! Last time I came to one of these they were even disputing that we had a problem, questioning the science of global warming.
But all is not what is seems, or what the US team would like it to seem. Behind the more conciliatory front the Bush crew are running a systematic wrecking operation, seeking to undermine the prospect for an agreement here.
For example, the US has enraged the developing countries by blocking any financial support for the transfer of environmentally sound technologies from richer countries to poorer ones. They have further provoked developing countries by weakening commitments to help with climate change adaptation. This of course requires money, for example to build sea walls, but here the Bush crowd removed words from the draft agreement that said how the rich countries should be "ensuring sufficient, predictable, additional and sustainable financial resources" for adaptation. They did this on the same day that the UN Development Programme published its annual Human Development Report in which it was estimated that many tens of billions of pounds are needed each year to help poor countries cope with the pollution of the rich. If you want to provoke an angry response, that's the way to do it.
The Americans have also sought to create friction with Europe, for example in seeking to strike out any idea of how much emission cuts are needed by when. They have resisted references to the need for a cut of between 25%-40% from rich countries and have tried to delete any mention of the need for emissions to peak and decline within about a decade. This is clearly a direct contradiction of their own view that any future agreements should be based on the latest science. They have muddied the waters on deforestation as well, deliberately creating confusion and thus the prospect of more misunderstanding and potential friction.
So far the Americans have done quite well, ably assisted by their supine henchmen: Japan and Canada. But the way they have been forced to act this time is quite different from the more public resistance they have demonstrated in previous meetings.
Perhaps the most important factor leading to this more sophisticated strategy is the dramatic shift in public opinion back home. Over the last two years US opinion has moved very far. No longer does the denial of global warming work, neither does the economic scaremongering that Bush and his backers have peddled through junk assessments as to what would be the cost of implementing the cuts mandated under the Kyoto Protocol. The Bush team know that the American people expect them to be positive, and that is why they have a smile on their face while putting the boot into the prospects for agreement.
The US is being cleverer still, however. Last summer President Bush announced just before the G8 Summit in Germany that he planned to start his own new climate change process. It would be about technology rather than targets and would include the big emitters. It was received with derision. I heard President Bush set out the proposal live while sitting in a Sky TV studio, where I gave an instant response as to what it meant. My first reaction was that it was a deliberate attempt to derail the UN and G8 climate change processes. Here in Bali it is clearer than ever that this is exactly what that process was set up to do.
Although it lacks support from just about anyone, the "major emitters initiative" l is being presented here as an alternative to new international laws. It is clear that the Bush team are seeking to hollow out the agreement here and to take the potentially most interesting areas and to hijack them into their non-binding process. High on the list in this respect is the technology transfer discussion. And on this subject the UK needs to be careful that it is not suckered into inadvertently helping the US.
Recently the Bush Administration dispatched people to the UK and Japan to encourage support for a new technology initiative that would be linked to the US-led major emitters process. The idea would be to mobilise some money to assist with technology in developing countries. Of course, if the money goes there and not (as the Americans intend it won't) through the UN process, then the UN track will be empty of resources while the non-binding process finishes up with the cash. Of course global political attention will follow the money and if the resources go to the non-binding process that could help deliver another blow to a long term climate change treaty.
Its quite clever, but it can be stopped.
Hilary Benn, who now leads the UK team at the talks, needs to make sure that he keeps his wits about him and is not fooled into believing that there is any sincerity behind the new and more kindly face of the American team. Margaret Beckett saw them off at the Montreal talks in 2005, diplomatically slapping the US chief negotiator in the chops. She could see that they were vulnerable to public opinion back home and knew that they could not be seen to be the people who brought the house of cards crashing down. It's the same now, only more so. If the Americans are exposed at home, they can be forced to stop blocking.
Under these circumstances, Benn now needs to find a way of helping to expose the US plan. He needs to find some key allies, among them China and Brazil, and to jointly flush out the Bush plot so that the American people can see what is going on. If he did that, he might help save these talks. If he sits on his hands, if he does only the diplomatic thing, then perhaps we will not get what we need from here.
The Americans have a new aim and different tactics, but in the end they are shooting for the same outcome: no meaningful international deal on climate change. I wonder if there will be some governments who will be prepared to challenge them in public. I wonder if Hilary Benn will lead the charge?