Is it a date that will live in infamy? On Dec. 14, at the climate-change talks in Bali, poor and rich nations agreed – for the first time – to each consider ways to reduce greenhouse gases. Oddly, though, this historic feat was a win for the Bush White House.
The Bali "action plan," reached Saturday by nearly 190 countries, sets the stage for negotiating a new, binding treaty that may be humanity's last opportunity to prevent the worst scenarios predicted in global warming.
The new pact would replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012, and which requires cuts in carbon emissions from only 36 nations, and only the major industrialized ones – a big reason why the US Senate and Bush decided not to join Kyoto.
To be sure, the Bali "road map" was not a complete win for Mr. Bush. Developing nations, which include economic giants such as China, India, and Brazil, need only consider measurable "actions" to reduce their effects on climate. The richer nations, meanwhile, agreed to seek "quantified" emission cuts.
This out-of-date divide between countries of the "north and south" is why Bush set up parallel talks involving the world's 16 largest emitters – rich and poor – who account for more than 80 percent of greenhouse gases. That group meets in Hawaii next month, outside the UN umbrella, with an aim to reach a consensus on voluntary targets.
During the Bali talks, however, Europe threatened to boycott the Hawaii meeting if the United States didn't agree to a rich-nation target of a 25 percent reduction in emissions by 2020. Europe's diplomatic pique quickly passed as more of the most-polluting poor nations saw it in their self-interest to curb emissions, even if the goals remain vague. That more-inclusive approach was helped along, not just by Bush, but the increasingly erratic world weather and the dire forecasts of the UN science panel on climate change.
Bush and the less-developed nations also came together in Bali to signal that the fight against global warming must allow for sustainable economic growth. But they differ in how to do that, with the US resisting obligations to help poorer nations with new energy technologies. That produced the most dramatic clash in Bali.
But the fact that developing nations are demanding money to help fight climate change is a sign they're eager to act. They also argue that rich nations, having largely causing global warming over the past century, need to now spread their wealth to help the poor cut carbon emissions.
Such massive transfers of money, however, are susceptible to scams and corruption, as the UN found out in the oil-for-food program in Iraq. The Bali talks also call for more money to help poor nations adapt to the effects of global warming – rising seas, for instance.
And in a bold scheme coming out of Bali, countries will try to firm up ways for polluting companies to earn "carbon credits" by paying poor nations not to cut down their carbon-dioxide-consuming forests. Schemes are prone to fraud if a country never had any intention of cutting down a forest, or it simply saves one forest only to cut down another.
But such problems can be more easily ironed out now that all nations have taken responsibility to act together against climate change.