If any of you were searching for real news this weekend, you would have had to wade through all the "who the hell cares anymore?" coverage of the presidential race. Every major media source gorged itself with a Thanksgiving-sized helping of Bush vs. Gore rhetoric and didn’t save any room for actual newsworthy events. However, if you did venture into the depths of the newspaper on Sunday, you would have found a very small amount of space devoted to a very significant collapse in negotiations at the United Nations World Climate Change Conference.
For the past two weeks, delegates from 180 nations have met in The Hague to reach an agreement on global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Negotiations fell apart Saturday, primarily due to a lack of consensus between the United States and the European Union. The failure to reach an agreement is a major setback in achieving reduction levels agreed upon in the 1997 Kyoto protocol. But, while Europe was portrayed as inflexible and unreasonable by American media, it was the United States itself who acted in an obstinate and bullheaded manner throughout these so-called "negotiations."
In 1997, the same 180 nations met in Japan to establish emission limits for greenhouse gases. The agreement aimed at cutting emissions by over 5 percent from 1990 levels by 2008-2012. Environmentalists saw the Kyoto agreement as a victory when it was signed by all 180 nations in 1997, however, only 30 have so far ratified it. The latest conference in The Hague was needed to hammer out the rules for how these cuts could be achieved and to increase the number of nations ratifying the treaty. From the first day of the conference, it was clear that the United States had definite plans for how these levels would be reached – by piggybacking on the reductions made by other nations.
The United States claimed the only way it could comply with the Kyoto restrictions was through emissions trading – buying pollution credits from countries that easily meet the emissions limits. However, the EU-U.S. dispute was mainly over a U.S. plan to offset the atmospheric carbon dioxide soaked up by forests and agricultural lands, against their emissions target. The United States seems to have very little interest in reforming its transportation and energy policies to cut pollution levels. What’s the point if you can buy your way to an environmentally friendly status?
The United States is the wealthiest nation in the world and also the largest polluter. Only 4 percent of the world’s population lives in this country, yet we manage to produce 25 percent of the world’s pollution. The attitude of the U.S. delegates at this latest global warming conference was typical of the stance we often take in international treaty negotiations, such as nuclear nonproliferation and land mines: Do as we say, not as we do. To attribute the failure in negotiations to the European resistance in allowing U.S. loopholes, completely ignores the uncompromising position that Americans continue to adopt.
As a global superpower and superpolluter, we have the greatest responsibility to make these negotiations a success. The duty is now upon the American people to pressure the government – whichever one it may be – to come up with some real strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Because, although the United States does not often have to face global consequences for its failure to negotiate international treaties, this time it has just as much to lose from global climate change as any other country in the world.