The global warming/climate change noise machine has reached a crescendo this week with Al Gore's trip to Oslo to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize, our colleges sponsoring "Focus the Nation" weeks to promote the self-evident moral truth of combating warming, and above all the U.N.-sponsored Bali conference meant to produce a treaty to succeed the soon-to-expire Kyoto. Just in time for Bali, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development issued a new crisis report listing the ten cities most due to be flooded by warming-induced sea level rise. Nine are in Asia; the other one is Miami.
The 10,000 or so government delegates and journalists gathered at Bali are not discussing science"the science is settled" is the alarmists' mantra--but politics, pure if not simple. Alliances have been shifting in some curious ways. Australia had a government change just before the conference, whereupon the new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, immediately signed on to the Kyoto treaty, committing his country to large cuts in CO2 emissions. Just a few days later, he backtracked embarrassingly when he realized the economic cost to Australia, but he was welcomed at least provisionally into the fold of the group favoring mandatory emissions cuts, a group led by the European Union.
That seemed to leave the United States almost alone among developed nations in rejecting Kyoto in favor of voluntary targets. But then some surprises: Canada, whose government led by Steven Harper has been backing away from the previous government's commitment to Kyoto, began publicly leaning toward the U.S. position; and then, to the embarrassment of the Kyoto group, Japan, home country of the treaty and of course a signatory to it, joined the United States and Canada in looking favorably on the voluntary approach. Its spokesman offered as an excuse for this apostasy that the intent was just to get the U.S. into the dialogue. That did not mollify the E.U. and other critics, and there is talk of the "unholy trinity" who are on the edge of outer darkness as far as the true believers are concerned.
Meanwhile, the developing countries, led by China and India in collaboration, have been noisily and stridently pushing another agenda. They don't want mandatory cuts either, but they say they are willing to take measures to cut their enormous and growing CO2 emissions--China now produces the world's largest amount--only if the developed countries go first. Furthermore, they say these developed countries must give them, at bargain rates or for free, new technology for emissions control and a transfer of intellectual property rights to any new clean technology so they can copy the processes and not have to pay to import them from the West. Their argument is that the rich developed countries caused the problem in the first place and must pay for the correction.
Some disingenuous Chinese have even said that their pollution is our fault because we have such an appetite for the goods of their factories. The devil--that's us--makes them do it. They also say that no international control regime will be permitted to slow their economic growth away from poverty, certainly not as long as their per capita emissions remain a fraction of the West's, especially that of the United States. In other words, they'll go on "polluting" as they please, accepting only such cuts as may be produced by technology given to them that will allow them to grow with fewer emissions.
That rough outline gets complicated by internal divisions, of course. Western environmental activists think the Chinese and Indian argument is valid and that we really should go first. There is a current and lively argument in our own Congress, with California's Senator Boxer leading the charge for a bill to cut our emissions sharply, even as she prepares to fly to Bali and contribute some atmospheric pollution as she flies. There are also economists and others in every country who know that sharp emission cuts means economic pain, or even (say some British critics) economic suicide. Naturally, this will not happen. The British government, for example, will build that third runway at Heathrow for solid economic reasons, full speed ahead and damn the pollution, even while it talks a good "green" game. And it is passing strange to think that the United States will give China any kind of technology for nothing, given our enormous debt to that country.
Another issue loaded with political implications is the proposed carbon-credit trading mechanism, by which countries with less "pollution" than their set limits can sell credits to those that exceed their quotas. One can imagine the quarreling over setting the quotas, what counts as earning credits (planting trees? or just scrubbers on the coal stacks?), and what looks like a massive transfer of cash from developed (industrialized) countries to emergent ones. For example, forested countries (as in Africa) want their share of this lucrative business and don't want factory-building countries like India and China to get it all. For another example, Russia has billions of dollars in carbon credits to sell; one cannot imagine the United States paying this "free money" to Putin's neo-totalitarian regime.
It's no surprise, given the clash of many interests, that the betting now is that this mammoth conference will produce lots of solemn verbiage but absolutely nothing of real substance. As I write, there is a report, really an unconfirmed leak, that the draft report has dropped any reference to specific emissions targets. There will, of course, be some self-congratulatory statements from U.N. leaders and others who want a new treaty that "real dialogue has begun," and "the process is continuing," and so on, as we move on to the next grand conference, perhaps in Hawaii. Someone has wondered whether instead of meeting in lush Bali in five-star hotels, there would have been as much enthusiasm if the conference had been called for, say, Düsseldorf.
Thomas Sieger Derr is professor emeritus of religion and ethics at Smith College and the author of Environmental Ethics and Christian Humanism. His essay "The Politics of Global Warming" appeared in the August/September issue of First Things.