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).
The late Aaron Wildavsky, professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley had it right. "Warming (and warming alone)," he wrote, "through its primary antidote of withdrawing carbon from production and consumption, is capable of realizing the environmentalist's dream of an egalitarian society based on the rejection of economic growth in favor of a smaller population's eating lower on the food chain, consuming a lot less, and sharing a much lower level of resources much more equally."
Scares pop up again and again – mainly with the aim that Wildavsky describes. Remember the report of the Club of Rome nearly 30 years ago, claiming that the world was running out of natural resources, like copper, oil and drinking water? That report turned out to be a massive delusion, but it captured the imagination of the public and the press, much as the global warming scare has.
This is not to say that warming may not be a problem. It may be, but dispassionate science – not technophobia and romanticism - is needed to answer the big questions. But back to sinks: Another reason for opposition is a general suspicion of these free-market-oriented Americans and skepticism toward technological and economic progress. Typical of this sentiment is a leaflet distributed by the Indigenous Peoples' Forum on Climate Change, one of dozens of environmental groups here in The Hague. You might think that such Green would support planting trees, but no:
"Our Cosmo vision requires us to condemn the inclusion of sinks in the CDM of the Kyoto Protocols. … Sinks projects whose prime criteria are economic and financial will lead to an expansion of large-scale plantations and through this we will become slaves of the carbon trade. Our forests should not be valued only for their carbon sequestration capacity."
The U.S. delegates, with backing from Canada and Japan, have introduced a compromise, a proposal to scale back the use of sinks as emissions credits, but Europe is resisting. A statement by the European Union said that the "proposal does not ensure the environmental integrity of the Kyoto Protocol" – whatever that may mean.
This reaction may be mere posturing – of which there is a lot in The Hague. For example, many of the developing countries here, say sources, are not out to cool the climate but to exact commitments from the U.S. and other nations for billions of dollars in "technology transfers" and other spending on climate-change mitigation.
It is a discouraging spectacle to anyone who expected rational, scientific discussions, but climate change has become an issue teeming with emotion – well illustrated by the six-foot-high pile of sandbags in front of the Netherlands Congress Center, where this conference is taking place.
The bags were stacked by protesters as a demonstration of what will happen as the level of the sea rises with the thermal expansion of water and the melting of glaciers, ice caps and sea ice. But on this question, "the range of uncertainty is high," writes Kenneth Green, director of the Environmental Program at the Reason Public Policy Institute, based on Los Angeles. Green cites the 1995 (most recent) report of the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
But uncertainty is not a word the participants like to hear. They have already made up their minds.