RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH 02/22/08
By Michael Shank and US Representative Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD)
It’s missing the point to think about the United Nations climate change conference in Bali last December based upon on whether specific targets were agreed upon or not. This point ignores dramatic historical changes in the world concerning climate change-related attitudes and approaches. Bali is not Kyoto. The new consensus among the U.S. Congress, President George Bush, and leaders of formerly recalcitrant countries such as India, China, and Australia is this: The international community recognizes climate change, recognizes our shared contribution to it and its impact on all of us, and recognizes our shared responsibility in tackling it.
This is new. This may feel like baby steps, but it is a significant accomplishment. Take a look back at Kyoto and compare notes. The difference in attitude and approach toward climate change then, particularly within the U.S. but also within the international community, was vastly different.
Congress, for example, was ardently against Kyoto. In 1997, the Senate voted in overwhelming opposition, 95-0, to prevent U.S. protocol participation unless developing nations like India and China were bound to similar targets and timetables.
Ten years later, much has changed. Concurrent with the Bali deliberations, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works passed the Climate Security Act, a bill co-authored by Republican Sen. John Warner and independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, which committed the U.S. to greenhouse gas emissions reductions of 15 percent by 2020. In the House of Representatives, the stalwarts representing the automobile manufacturing industry — such as Rep. John Dingell, whose conversion was compelled by compassion and concern for our children’s future — are calling for aggressive greenhouse-gas emissions targets. The climate in Congress is radically different now. It is no longer a political liability to go green; in fact the opposite is true.
The Bush administration, until 2006, was not comfortable with the concept of climate change or committing American resources to tackle it. In fact, during the president’s first term, the White House downplayed the seriousness of the science, calling only for more research and development. In just two years, much has changed. In calling for a tete-a-tete last September with the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters, President Bush officially embraced the problem of climate change and the need to collectively address it.
The president also has called for America’s independence from fossil fuels, the energy source most responsible for climate change, and has pledged to wean us off. The language of energy independence and energy security is now common parlance in presidential addresses and Pentagon papers, a predictable shift given the high price of oil and volatility of oil resource ownership. Instead of seeking to block any change at Bali, the Bush administration was actively negotiating, albeit timidly, but engaged nonetheless.
India, China, and Australia, until 2007, were equally noncommittal. The feeling in India and China, especially, was that the developed nations bore the biggest burden on emissions reductions since their early growth depended upon energy-intensive industries, and were responsible for a larger share of global emissions. This argument resonated well among developing countries and bore some truth regarding the origins of emissions.
Until recently, the U.S. was the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitter, surpassed in 2007 by China. Although China’s per-capita emissions remain at 4 tons per person per year, compared with America’s 24 tons per person, its total emissions, now ranked the world’s largest, have encouraged it to take a different tack. The real threat that the Olympics could be cancelled due to heavy emissions clouding Beijing certainly played a role in China’s recent conversion as well.
In Australia, the election of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to replace John Howard must also not be understated. Rudd’s first act in office was to sign Kyoto, ushering in one of the last developed countries, leaving the U.S. standing solitary. Undoubtedly this put political pressure on Kyoto’s major remaining non-signatory and just in time for Bali. America was invariably more inclined to join a new agreement than stand alone against an old one.
We should recognize the historic shift confirmed at Bali. The tide is finally turning and climate change now has every stakeholder invested in its outcome. Never before have members of Congress who represent Motown and coal country so courageously called for emissions reductions. Never before has President Bush pushed the agenda so aggressively among fellow emitters. Never before have India and China shown seriousness and savvy vis-a-vis going green. There is something different now. We are all on board.
Roscoe Bartlett represents Maryland’s 6th District in Congress, and can be reached at 202-225-2721. Michael Shank is an analyst with George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.