Can the Planet Be Saved in Bali?

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The Earth.

The idea that the gorgeous resort community of Nusa Dua would be chosen as the venue for a conference to save the world might seem counterintuitive: Bali's lush surroundings, after all, are beautiful to the point of distraction, and the more than 10,000 diplomats, environmentalists and journalists gathered on this island are here for the painstaking negotiations over one of the planet's most vexing challenges — global warming. Then again, it is far too hot outside at this time of year to lie about in the sun, and the delegates are all too aware that if they fail, here, to launch a viable road map to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, humanity may fall fatally behind the accelerating pace of climate change.

Past the halfway point of the conference, which ends on Dec. 14, the signs are generally positive. At a briefing over the weekend, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change executive chairman Yvo de Boer praised the constructive behavior of China, which for the first time seemed open to the principle of developing countries' sharing responsibility for climate action. (The Kyoto Protocol, whose 10th anniversary is Tuesday, had required only industrialized nations to make mandatory cuts in carbon gas emissions, on the principle that those nations had created most of the problem.) Also, the delegation of the United States — long the chief spoiler of progress toward a global emissions-curbing framework while erstwhile climate-change skeptic President George W. Bush had been at the helm — has been notably restrained so far. "I'm convinced the Administration is coming here in good faith," says David Doniger, policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Still, the big questions still remain unanswered:

Who will blink first? It has become obvious to the international community that the Bush Administration is now isolated within the U.S. on climate change. Senator John Kerry visited Bali on Monday, trumpeting recent congressional action on climate change, while a parade of U.S. mayors and governors will be stopping by to talk about growing grassroots efforts. With the Bush Administration almost a lame duck, European countries and others advocates of aggressive emissions cuts finally have hope that Washington will be a leader, not an obstacle.

But even a committed Democratic Administration in 2009 will have limits. Chief among them is that any successor to Kyoto needs to be "global," to use Kerry's word — meaning that some of the burden will have to be shared by developing nations whose rapid economic growth will make them responsible for the majority of future carbon emissions. China has continued to insist that it will not accept mandatory caps on emissions, which it sees as an unfair limit to its natural economic growth (a position essentially shared by Washington, which also opposes mandatory caps). One positive change from a decade ago, however, is that most developing nations know just how vulnerable they are to the consequences of climate change — including a China facing a long-term water crisis. That could lead down the road to acceptance of some sort on non-mandatory responsibilities, such as no-fault emissions targets that reward success but don't punish failure, and that could provide just enough political cover for a new U.S. Administration to take the lead on climate change.

Does population size matter? Observers note that while China has been fairly vocal at Bali, the other rising emitter — India — has been quiet thus far. That may change when high-level environment ministers show up starting Dec. 12, but it could be indicative of a hardening negotiating position. More so than many other developing nations, India views climate change through a political position that prioritizes the responsibility of the rich countries, and rejects mandatory cuts on countries just beginning to industrialize. Their argument is based on population size: Even years from now, when China and India will be emitting much of the world's carbon gas, the average Chinese or Indian will still be responsible for far less global-warming pollution than the average Westerner. The burden of restrictions, they argue, should therefore be shouldered first in the industrialized West.

That principle helped shape Kyoto in a way that mostly gave developing nations a free pass. But, as Kerry pointed out, warming "is not a per-capita issue; it's a global emissions issue." The climate system doesn't care how little carbon each Indian is responsible for, if collectively they're throwing a whole lot into the atmosphere. So far the world has addressed this on a national level, not a personal one. But it's still hard to refute the argument that developing nations are somehow getting the short end of the stick here — which means we haven't heard the last of it.

Do we have enough time? The evening cocktail parties were just getting started in Bali as former Vice President Al Gore was accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, thousands of miles away. In his speech, Gore called for bold and immediate action from the negotiators in Bali, including a universal global cap on carbon emissions. "We must quickly mobilize our civilization," he said. "Something basic is wrong. We are wrong and we must make it right."

Of course, that's not happening. Even if there were the sort of planetwide consensus that Gore calls for — and there's not — the wheels of international governance grind slow. It takes 190-plus countries a long, long time to agree on anything. So it can sometimes seem, in the torpid heat of Bali, that the calls for action will go unheeded, that we'll never get our act together in time the meet the demands of science, which call for a peak on global carbon emissions to be reached within a decade or so, followed by rapid reductions. That we'll conference ourselves to death.

Maybe, but as Gore himself has said, the political system is not linear. Today there is momentum on climate change in the U.S. that was unimaginable just a year ago. "It's hard to gauge just how quickly the momentum could gather," says Frances Beinecke, NRDC's president, who counts herself as hopeful. There's no time to wait — even if the beach looks inviting in Bali.