U.S. Fails Test at The Hague

Countries at conference on global warming could not reach agreement on Kyoto Protocol

With representatives from 182 governments, 323 intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, and 443 registered media stations, the largest worldwide media event this month was staged far away from Florida--it was the Sixth Conference of the Parties in The Hague, Netherlands. The two-week conference that ended Nov. 25 aimed to finalize details set forth in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol in an effort to combat global warming.

Although the U.S. paid little attention to the conference, its failure to reach a conclusion might have a larger impact on the well-being of the average American and citizens around the world than the outcome of the legal battles in the Sunshine state. Shortly before the conference, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the most authoritative body on global warming, issued a preliminary summary of its 2000 report saying that humans "contributed substantially to the observed warming over the last 50 years." This is a much stronger language than the wording used in its report five years ago, when humans were considered a "discernable" influence on the world's climate. The IPCC report also predicted disconcerting global surface temperature increases over the next century of up to 11 degrees Fahrenheit.

Many Americans, most notably Texas Gov. George W. Bush, are still denying any such connection between human industrial activity and global warming. Even among people recognizing the existence of global warming and its human component, the response thus far has been a collective "So what?" It might, therefore, be rather surprising that European and American negotiators in The Hague were closer to a deal than ever before.

Under the Kyoto protocol, the U.S. will have to reduce its total carbon emissions within the next decade by roughly 600 million tons. The U.S. delegation went into the talks demanding that 300 of these 600 million tons of carbon should be accounted for by so-called carbon sinks--mainly the natural regrowth of forests in the U.S., which removes carbon from the atmosphere. This would essentially enable the U.S. to cut its mandatory emissions reductions by half. Not surprisingly, Europeans came out strongly against the proposal. In the final days of the conference, the Americans decreased their demands for counting natural carbon sinks first to 150, then 125, 75, 50, and finally to 40 million tons--slightly more than 10 percent of the original demands. The Europeans approached the U.S. by granting them a meager 25 million tons of carbon to be accounted for by natural sinks, but the two parties failed to reach an agreement and the talks were suspended.

It is hard to assess what caused the talks to collapse in the end, but this time, the roles in putting trust into the underlying science have clearly been reversed. It was the Americans who had reservations on the scientific basis of global warming when the rest of the world had reached a consensus on its causes and consequences, but now the Europeans accused America of "voodoo" science, as Steve Curwood put it on National Public Radio's Living on Earth. A significant number of studies cast doubt onto the effectiveness of forests in absorbing carbon, and Jeffrey Jenkins, a highly respected researcher sponsored by the British Government, even proposed a theory showing the opposite effect: planting trees in northern latitudes on previously bare land will darken the Earth's surface. Darker areas absorb more sunlight which will increase the Earth's temperatures. This might completely offset and even reverse the positive effects of trees decreasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Whatever the ultimate scientific consensus on this issue, the talks were hindered by the low-level officals that the U.S. sent. There was some talk of President Clinton stopping by on his way home from Vietnam, but this never happened. As a result, the highest-ranking U.S. official in The Hague was Undersecretary of State Frank Lloyd, the head of the American delegation. Some countries, like France, even sent their president, and most other countries had prime ministers, deputy prime ministers or at least full cabinet members as representatives--some for the entire length of the talks. It was immensely difficult for Lloyd to grant any concessions in the debates, particularly in the decisive final hours, owing to the fact that he had to reconfirm every significant move with Washington.

In the end, we can only hope that the magnitude of the U.S. delegation's concessions and the closeness of the final talks reflects the general state of the climate debate. Even though some issues such as the role of natural carbon sinks still warrant further investigation, the underlying science of global warming is becoming increasingly clear. The U.S. should, in the future, make a more substantive committment to cooperating with European nations and developing countries to honestly address the increasing threat of global warming--before it's too late.