Bali is a word that in 10-15 years I hope will represent and define the time when humanity made an essential shift in direction. There are currently some 10,000 people attending the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Bali. More than 180 countries are represented along with numerous attendees from non-governmental, intergovernmental groups and of course the media. The general reason for the meeting is to start work on the replacement of the Kyoto accord to address the issue of greenhouse gas emissions which expires in 2012.
The Bali conference is actually the first step since its goals are threefold: to launch negotiations for a climate change deal for the post 2012 period, to set the agenda for these negotiations, and then to reach agreement on when these negotiations will have to be concluded. While this process sounds ponderous and bureaucratic, that is to be expected given that it is governmental agencies that must make these determinations. In this world of ever increasing rapidity of change, governments seem to be the part of society that moves most slowly and is now following their citizens rather than leading them.
The length of this process will actually work to the benefit of those who feel, as I do, that immediate and drastic actions must be taken. The data about global warming is coming in rapidly and it is alarming to those that study it. The U.N Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, when they recently released their fourth and final report stated that even during the five years of their efforts the data coming in during the final year was pushing the upper limits of what they had initially predicted might happen when they first launched their study. In other words, every day, data comes in that points to the need for greater curtailment of greenhouse emissions and sooner than initially thought necessary.
What needs to be pointed out is that the debate over percentage drop in total CO2 emissions and by what date is a relativistic discussion. If all CO2 emissions were to cease tomorrow, the planet would still continue to warm up due to all that has already been belched into the atmosphere already. This would continue for years after total cessation of emissions. Current emissions are down some 11% from 1990, and guess what? The planet is continuing to show global warming. The ongoing conversation is about 10% to 40% drop from current levels by 2020. A noble effort, but not a solution. Slouching toward Bethlehem.
It appears that the majority of countries attending are in support of dramatic curtailment of greenhouse emissions. The developing countries, who may be most affected by global warming and who have the least greenhouse emissions are of course the most adamant and committed to lowering these emissions as much as possible and as soon as possible. The developed countries are being looked to for dramatic curtailment of emissions. China, the second worst country after the U.S, in greenhouse emissions, and India are both resistant to going along with the developed countries as they believe that they should not be forced to restrict their exploding economies as they grow to match the developed economies. The key to this part of the discussion will, I think, revolve around how much the developed countries will lead financial assistance to these two countries and the developing countries to help them retrofit their economies to meet stringent emission guidelines.
In the early days of the conference Australia announced its full support of the conference and its final decisions. This left the U.S. as the only developed country not committed to do so. As the greatest user of energy and the leading country when it comes to greenhouse emissions the U.S. should be providing leadership for one of the most important issues ever to face humanity. Environmental leadership is non-existent in the Bush administration and it is shameful. Once again, as I speak to people around the world I must differentiate myself as a citizen from the administration that purports to lead us.
The basic stance the U.S. government is taking is that why should we change our ways if China doesn’t? The government also still holds to that old, no longer relevant position that curbing greenhouse gases is bad for the economy. If the U.S were to focus instead on creating new energy technologies – as silicon valley is doing – we could create untold wealth and leadership as a country. The stance that China is taking is why should we slow down our booming economy if the U.S. won’t do anything? It reminds me of that common parental experience of telling a young child that just because another kid doesn’t do the right thing doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t do the right thing.
Bali is a turning point as is the issue of global warming. This meeting will be looked at by future historians as a seminal event. I will explore this from a more futurist point of view in a future column.