12,000 in Bali confront climate crisis

The UN-sponsored Bali conference that wound up Dec. 14 in Indonesia laid the basis for negotiations for an international agreement to follow the Kyoto Protocol, due to expire in 2012. While there are many sharp disagreements, and counties advocate varied strategies to address global climate change, there is increasing world consensus about the necessity of cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Over 12,000 participants met in Bali to discuss and debate how to address climate change. They heard updates from scientists on the observable speeding up of global warming — from faster-than-predicted melting of the Greenland glacial fields and Arctic ice sheets to the increase in extreme weather events. They discussed ways to finance programs for developing countries to adapt to the effects of global warming, such as water conservation, building higher sea walls, training in new agricultural techniques and improving the efficiency of agricultural irrigation systems. They called for developing, by 2009, a new world agreement to continue what Kyoto started.

The conference took place at the same time that Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for their work on global warming. The IPCC is a UN-initiated committee of climate scientists from around the world charged with developing a consensus view of the realities, risks and causes of climate change.

Australia had been the only other major industrialized country besides the U.S. that had refused to endorse the Kyoto Protocol. It has now begun the process of ratification following an upset election in which the issue of climate change played a major role. The first day of the Bali conference erupted in applause when this was announced. The U.S. government is increasingly isolated as the only industrialized country that refuses to consider serious, mandatory steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. and Australia are the world’s highest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases.

China, which like the U.S. still resists mandatory limits on emissions, has nonetheless begun to play a more positive role, taking steps to increase the use of renewable energy sources, increasing the efficiency of energy use in industry and starting a massive reforestation program.

The IPCC and the annual conference are part of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, signed over 10 years ago to coordinate international work to study and address global warming. As the scientific certainty about global warming has deepened, as evidence has accumulated and as public opinion has shifted, this work has become more important.

Efforts are being made to reach some agreement for developed countries to compensate developing countries that slow or stop deforestation.

Tropical forests play a significant role in absorbing carbon dioxide, and they also increase transpiration, releasing evaporated water into the atmosphere, leading to essential rainfall and cloud formation, and clouds help reflect sunlight back into space, lessening global warming. But when the wood is cut and burned, carbon dioxide is released. Tropical forests are also believed to be particularly sensitive to the effects of global warming, and thus in great danger of dying due to changes in rainfall, temperature and other environmental stressors.

However, selling wood on the world market and clearing forest land for agriculture, grazing and other economic uses account for significant economic activity in some developing countries. If they can be compensated for stopping or slowing deforestation, they then have an incentive to prevent destructive development, and the whole planet benefits. Otherwise, deforestation will continue to accelerate, and the people of the whole world will pay the price in increased warming.

But there are serious difficulties to negotiate before an agreement can be reached. Who will put up the money to fund the compensation? Who will monitor to make sure that deforestation isn’t just shifted elsewhere? Will international efforts compromise the national sovereignty of developing countries (a particular worry of Brazil)?

While many such issues remain to be negotiated, the growing world consensus is putting additional pressure on negotiators, countries, corporations and international agencies to work out solutions. Demonstrations in over 50 cities worldwide, timed to coincide with the Bali conference, called for more decisive action. Protesters from London to Manila condemned President Bush as a key obstacle to negotiated settlements.

U.S. representatives in Bali finally agreed that climate change is a serious problem and that human activity is responsible, yet at the same time opposed any mandatory international standards. This stance is being challenged by a bill reported out of committee in the U.S. Senate, which calls for 50 percent cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, transportation and manufacturing by 2050 — the first such bill to be sent to the Senate floor. However, U.S. officials say this will not impact their stance.

marcbrodine@inlandnet.com