Is America the Villain in Bali?

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Supri / Reuters

Nobel Laureate and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore speaks at the side event of the UN Climate Change Conference 2007 in Nusa Dua on Bali island, December 13, 2007.

For Al Gore, it was time to utter a new inconvenient truth that diplomatic niceties precluded others from telling: "My own country, the United States, is principally responsible for obstructing progress here," he told a packed audience at the U.N. climate change summit in Bali. "We all know that."

The former Vice President spoke shortly after European Union officials had resorted to an unusually public show of anger by threatening to boycott U.S.-sponsored climate talks in Washington next month to protest the Bush Administration's opposition to negotiating over setting limits on carbon emissions. Earlier in the day Ivo de Boer, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) told reporters that he feared the summit could fail to conclude an agreement before it closes on Dec. 14. De Boer, as a U.N. official, couldn't be so blunt as to name the culprit, but there were no such restraints on Gore.

The Nobel laureate, in fact, urged delegates to push ahead despite U.S. opposition, even to the point of drafting a negotiating document with blank spaces where American participation should be. But while Gore's public criticism of his own country's delegation — and implicitly, of the President who controls it — electrified his audience, what he said next was even more important. "Over the next two years, the United States is going to be somewhere it is not right now," said Gore. "We are going to change in the U.S."

That the U.S. leadership is deeply divided on climate change has been patently obvious to even the most casual observer here. Washington's official delegation has emerged as the chief spoiler in moves to take meaningful action on climate change. But among the most vocal critics of the official delegation has been an array of American environmentalists, legislators and state and local government officials. Carl Pope, president of the Sierra Club, called the U.S. performance "the most explicitly irresponsible action that any American Administration has taken in any of our lifetimes."

But the purpose of the shadow U.S. delegation here — spiritually led by Gore and including the likes of Sen. John Kerry, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and dozens of officials from California (Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had planned to attend, but budget negotiations kept him at home) — is to signal the world that the Bush Administration no longer represents the views of most Americans on climate change. They point to the fact that U.S. cities, states and, now, the Congress have taken steps to combat global warming, and that next year's election will likely accelerate that momentum. "The message here is that help is on the way," says Mike Chrisman, California's Secretary of Resources.

Despite the scientific work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlighting the urgency of deep and rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. — along with Japan, Australia and Canada — has resolutely opposed a European push for the Bali delegates to discuss targeted emissions cuts. That opposition isn't surprising, because the Bush Administration has never hidden its opposition to mandatory cuts. But observers here say the U.S. obstructive role has been more egregious, stymieing attempts to craft meaningful action on everything from deforestation to measures to help developing nations manage their carbon output. "The U.S. has been fingered as the problem here — and they really are," says John Coequyt, climate adviser for Greenpeace.

The Administration's intransigence is all the more glaring in contrast to the positions of the climate progressives from the Senate and the states who've come to Bali. Even as White House Council on Environmental Quality chairman James Connoughton on Thursday defended the delegation's refusal to embrace aggressive targets, claiming they were premature, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was in a nearby hotel arguing the opposite. "People everywhere recognize the time for discussion about whether global warming exists has passed," said Bloomberg, who has called for the implementation of a carbon tax. "Now it's time for action."

And Bloomberg could point to the fact that over 700 U.S. cities have signed up to meet Kyoto Protocol-style carbon cuts, while California has mandated a 25% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020. "People here are acutely aware of what's happening in the U.S. beyond the Bush Administration, and they take great heart in the growing momentum," says Eliot Diringer, director of international strategies for the Pew Center on Climate Change.

Sen. John Kerry came in person to Bali to deliver that message, meeting with foreign delegations, his rhetoric backed by the recent passage by the Senate Environment Committee of the Warner-Lieberman Climate Bill, which calls for 15% emission reductions by 2020. "I wanted to make certain that those folks who are involved in the negotiations understand that they are not alone in dealing with this," says Kerry. "The Administration is isolated in its own country." Kerry, Maine Republican Senator Olympia Snowe and 50 other members of Congress sent a protest letter Wednesday to President Bush calling for U.S. negotiators to drop their opposition to emission targets.

Despite the moral support they lend to those pushing the U.S. to accept stronger action, Gore, Kerry and the rest of the shadow U.S. delegation are ultimately powerless to affect the outcome at Bali — the fate of the negotiations remains in the hands of President Bush and his negotiators. Toward the end of his speech Gore, with his customary taste for the eccentric analogy, invoked the hockey player Bobby Hull, who Gore said was skilled because he sent the puck, not where his teammates were, but where they would be. "You have to look to where we're going to be," Gore urged the Bali delegates. The problem with that advice for the Bali delegates, however, is that Gore is not the President.