How the U.S. Caved at Bali

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JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty Images

Environmental activists and supporters shout slogans during a demonstration at the venue of the UN Climate Change Conference 2007 in Nusa Dua on Bali island, Dec. 14.

There's no crying in international diplomacy — and usually not much booing, or serious drama, either. But the extended closing day of the UN climate change conference in Bali, which ultimately resulted in an important agreement, featured both.

The two-week-long negotiations, meant to craft the beginnings of a new global effort on climate change, had already gone into overtime when diplomats emerged from behind closed doors at 2 AM Saturday morning, claiming that a compromise deal between the EU, the U.S. and the major developing nations had been reached. Delegates from some 190 nations reconvened several hours later for what should have been a final approval session.

But delegates from India and China unexpectedly objected to aspects of the text, including the degree of technical assistance poor nations would receive from the rich for low-carbon development. The impasse — the latest in several tortured days of negotiations — led Rachlat Witolear, the chair of the conference, to twice suspend the open session for further behind the scenes meetings, leading to a real fear that diplomats might leave the island without a final agreement.

It was only with the help of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, who made an emergency stop in Bali, that negotiations got kick started. The South Korean, in office for less than a year, is known as diplomatic even by UN standards, but he arrived without mincing words. "Frankly, I am disappointed at the lack of progress," said Ban to a packed audience. "Seize the moment, this moment, for the good of all humanity."

With that, Ban left the chamber to a standing ovation. Witolear reopened talks, and a representative from China turned to speak. His anger audible, he asked why the UN secretariat overseeing the meeting had earlier restarted the session while negotiators were still meeting away from the conference hall — essentially accusing the officials of acting unfairly towards the developing nations. For Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the summit's guide, it was too much. Visibly exhausted by all-night negotiations, the Dutchman appeared to momentarily break down and fled the session, leaving a stunned audience in his wake.

But the real drama was to come. After India reiterated its objection — and was essentially supported by the European Union — the lead American negotiator Paula Dobiansky turned to speak, and announced that the U.S. would not accept India's changes, which sought to lighten the expectations from developing countries. (The UN negotiating process requires total consensus.) Boos rained on the U.S. delegation from NGO observers and even the press gallery, breaking the last remaining appearance of diplomatic placidity.

It's hardly the first time the U.S. has been jeered at a UN event, but what happened next was unique. Nation after developing nation rose to criticize the U.S. in language more often reserved for a political debate than a UN conference. A representative from tiny Papua New Guinea — one of many small island states most immediately threatened by climate change — recalled the old Lee Iacocca line about leading, following or getting out of the way. "If the U.S. will not lead, get out of the way," he said, to gallery cheers. "Please get out of the way."

More importantly, with the exception of a confused statement from Japan, not one of the allies that had generally stood with the U.S. the past two weeks — Australia, Russia, Canada — rose in its defense. The near-total isolation of the U.S. on climate change — which had been building since its rejection of the Kyoto Protocol nearly a decade ago — was now obvious, apparently even to the U.S. Dobiansky turned to speak. "We've listened very closely to many of our colleagues here during these two weeks, but especially to what has been said in this hall today," she said. "We will go forward and join consensus." Boos turned to cheers, and the deal was essentially sealed.

For the exhausted delegates — not to mention the journalists and environmentalists who had stayed through the night and the day following the negotiations — the simple elation at having reached an agreement was palpable. "In 20 years of doing this, I've never seen anything like this," marveled Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).