Bali: Why Bush Blinked

Last week, the Bali climate talks ended on an unexpectedly euphoric note, with the United States agreeing to “deep cuts” in carbon emissions. The move paves the way for two years of talks that should see a post-Kyoto climate agreement enacted in 2012; crucially, it also delays some of the most important negotiations until 2009, when the US will have a new (and hopefully more environmentally minded) leader. 

Team Bush’s change of heart came after two weeks in which America had grown increasingly isolated, earning opprobrium for her refusal even to consider mandatory emissions cuts. Ultimately, the US delegation was pinned down by strident opposition from European and developing-world delegates - and outflanked by a group of US politicians and climate advocates spearheaded by Al Gore, Michael Bloomberg, and John Kerry. 

Effectively, the world gave Bush an ultimatum: engage with the climate talks, or be sidelined altogether. Europeans threatened to boycott America’s parallel climate negotiations if the US didn’t play ball; meanwhile the unofficial US delegation sought to portray Bush as a lame duck, pleading with delegates to look beyond the current president and plan for the future. Even Papua New Guinea - not normally a big hitter at international gatherings - managed to land a punch: “We seek your leadership. But if for some reason you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us,” her delegate told the US to resounding applause. “Please get out of the way.”

The outpouring of frustration from the assembled delegates left Bush with little choice: He couldn’t force through his preferred agenda, and would have hemorrhaged credibility at home and abroad if he’d continued to block the talks’ progress. With no other option, the US delegation caved and agreed to join the international consensus.

But if Bush blinked, it was only after securing important concessions. The Bali roadmap still fails to set firm targets for emission reductions: Under pressure from Washington, plans for a 25 to 40 percent cut in developed-world emissions were replaced with a vague footnote referring only to a range of possible options.

The agreement also failed to set funding targets for poor countries, which will require upwards of $50 billion a year to fight global warming. As things stand, the developing world won’t receive extra climate cash until after 2012.

Sadly, the reality is that Bali’s only real achievement was keeping everyone at the table. That a mere agreement to keep talking could prompt such euphoria is a sign of just how far the international community’s expectations have fallen.