THE HAGUE, The Netherlands - In a meeting known by the acronym COP-6, more than 5,000 participants from some 160 countries have gathered for two weeks in this rainy, misty capital of Holland, the home of a famous failed peace conference of a century ago and a bourgeois place about which the poet and social critic Matthew Arnold wrote in 1859 “my heart would so have sunk at the thought of living.”
The subject is what the United Nations calls “crucial climate change talks.” In fact, the official bureaucratic title of this get-together is the Sixth Session of the Conference of the Participants to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, and it has attracted heads of state and government like Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and Jacques Chirac, president of France.
But many American observers are wondering exactly what all the delegates are doing here. Is this a public relations exercise, a chance to moralize and vent Luddite passions, or a real substantive discussion on the future of the planet?
The answer is probably all three, but the first two seem to predominate.
Let me set the stage. Three years ago, in Kyoto, participants signed a pact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions around the world by 5 percent compared with 1990 levels (that requires a bigger cut than reducing 5 percent from today’s levels, of course), with different reduction levels parceled out to different countries. The United States had to cut gases, mainly carbon dioxide (CO2), by 7 percent, for example, while all developing nations, including China, a huge emitter of greenhouse gases, were exempt.
The reason for the reduction proposal was increasing evidence that the Earth is getting warmer and that human intervention is playing a role. Global warming is predicted to have effects both benign (longer growing seasons that will mean more food) and dire (rising sea levels that will inundate islands).
Most scientists believe the Earth is warming, though satellite observations cast some doubt. Still even if warming is conceded, whether the warming is significant in scale, whether it is part of natural cycles observed over thousands of years, or whether it is the consequence of the burning of fossil fuels are matters open to debate. So are the question of where warming is occurring and what will happen as a result. The science is, to say the least, unclear.
But that didn’t stop delegates at Kyoto from laying out a plan to reduce emissions – a plan so expensive that it would almost certainly lead to a reduction in economic growth around the world, hurting not just developed countries like the United States but poorer nations, for which the U.S., Europe and Japan are prime markets.
In 1997, a resolution was introduced by Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia that said that the Senate would not ratify any treaty that required developed nations to reduce emissions while giving developing countries such as China a free pass (exactly what Kyoto, in fact, does) and would result in “serious harm to the economy of the United States”(almost certainly another effect of Kyoto). The Hagel-Byrd resolution passed unanimously, and the likelihood that the United States would approve a Kyoto-like treaty, even if Al Gore becomes the next president, is extremely slim.
So far, 30 other countries have ratified the treaty, but all of them are developing nations. The Europeans are holding off, pressuring the United States to move first – a development which is, frankly, a pipedream.
So what are the folks here in The Hague talking about? They are quibbling over parts of the agreement that, while important, are not expected to change the opposition of the United States.
The points of contention – mainly mechanisms for adhering to a treaty and enforcing it -- also illustrate the hidden agendas that dominate this conference.
Take the hot issue of the moment here: sinks. A sink is typically a forest, whose plants trap carbon through the photosynthesis process. U.S. delegates want to be able to meet part of their obligation under Kyoto by establishing such sinks.
While that sounds like a perfectly decent idea – since the point of the treaty is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, floating around in the air – the proposal has been met with opposition, even disdain, from Europeans and others.
Why? One major reason is that the agenda here is not just to reduce carbon dioxide emissions but also to get the United States to cut back on the burning of fossil fuels – for two reasons. First, if U.S. companies are forced to spend billions of dollars reducing emissions, they will become less competitive industrially with European countries (which, by the way, face much less onerous treaty obligations). Second, many of the delegates and environmental observers in The Hague simply (like Gore) hate the gasoline-powered combustion engine, not to mention fossil-fuel-powered electrical generation (there aren’t fond of nuclear either, but that’s another story).