America Abroad

This week’s climate talks in Bali offered, among other things, a vision of two Americas. On the one side stood the official US delegation, led by Harlan Watson; on the other, a bipartisan group of congressional leaders headed by Democratic Senators John Kerry and Barbara Boxer.

Given Watson’s popularity with the oil industry, it came as no surprise that he stuck to the usual script, promising firm opposition to any post-Kyoto deal that involved mandatory emissions cuts. That’s an increasingly lonely stand, one that even Australia has now abandoned, and one most greens rightly see as a cop-out.

Fortunately, Senators Kerry, Boxer, et. al were on hand to remind delegates that Bush’s administration is nearing its expiration date - and that his successor will likely be far friendlier to the climate lobby’s cause. The congressional team may not have any official standing, but they found a ready audience; it helped that back home on the Hill lawmakers were pushing ahead with groundbreaking climate legislation that would cut America’s power, transport, and manufacturing emissions by 70 percent by 2050.

But while the Democratic Congress and their representatives were giving greens at home and abroad a reason to be optimistic, it’s important not to underestimate the potential cost of the President’s continued indifference to climate change.

It’s true, of course, that the Bali talks are only the beginning: It’ll take two years before a final post-Kyoto deal is reached, and by then the Bush administration will be a fading memory. But while the White House’s current tenant can’t derail the Bali talks altogether, he can certainly disrupt and delay their progress - and that, in turn, will make it harder for negotiators to meet their ambitious 2009 deadline for hammering out a new treaty.

That could have serious consequences: The Kyoto nations have already started a multi-billion dollar trade in carbon credits, and any hint that the talks might overrun would spark a crisis in confidence among carbon traders, potentially wreaking havoc on the world’s fledgling carbon markets. That, in turn, could make it much harder to shape a viable post-Kyoto treaty in the negotiations that still remain.

Ultimately, what Democrats sought to offer in Bali this week was an antidote to this malaise: a glimpse of a post-Bush America in which politicians take climate seriously and live up to their international obligations. It’s an appealing vision. In the days and weeks that follow, we’ll begin to see whether it’s enough to counter the damage that’s already been done.