Climate Clash, Round 2

Nations answer the bell for the next global-warming slugfest

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Last week, Indonesia launched a campaign to plant 79 million trees.

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On the Pacific resort of Bali, among the mangroves and tamarind trees and just across the water from 2,000 smaller Indonesian islands that may sink into the sea if the world continues on its current climatic course, diplomats of 180 nations will gather this week to see if they can agree on a plan to steer clear of potential global catastrophe.

The United Nations Climate Change Conference kicks off negotiations for a treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. But the gathering includes more than just the 36 industrialized countries that have already agreed to cut fossil fuel emissions. Talks will involve all the nations that signed on to the original 1992 "framework convention" to do something to stop global warming. All eyes are on the two biggest polluters: the United States, which never agreed to the Kyoto limits, and rapidly growing China, which like all poor countries was not required to make cuts.

Over 15 years, the challenge of bridging the chasm between the developed and the developing worlds has only mounted, as has the evidence of peril. In mid-November, in a pointed shout-out to the Bali conferees, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (fresh from the Nobel Prize it shared with Al Gore) issued its final consensus report of more than 2,000 scientists: Warming is "unequivocal," and there is "very high confidence" that humans are the cause. Increased temperatures, snow and ice melt, and rising sea levels are already evident, the IPCC said. Director Rajendra Pachauri said action was needed within two to three years to stave off the risk of mass migrations and conflict over water and food.

"The world has one shot at getting an effective mechanism in place, and this is it," says Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, one of 10,000 people expected at the Bali meeting. "The future of millions of people and the climate hinge on this."

Slash and burn. But that means finding a way to reduce the burning of the fossil fuels—oil, coal, and natural gas—that power economies at a time when the world's most populous nations are determined to continue progress at lifting their people out of poverty. U.N. leaders called Indonesia's islands a "poignant" setting for the meeting because of their beauty and vulnerability to the extreme climate effects. But Indonesia is also a fitting locale because it has become the world's third-largest contributor to greenhouse gases with its rapid slashing and burning of rain forest for lucrative palm oil plantations. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono last week launched a campaign to plant 79 million trees before the conference begins. But that would not begin to offset the two to three football fields' worth of forest Indonesia clears every minute. Yudhoyono has urged that rich countries provide financial incentives to help preserve the rain forests that draw carbon from the atmosphere.

The fundamental dispute at Bali will center upon the Bush administration's opposition to binding limits on carbon emissions. Now that drought-stricken Australia's newly elected president has vowed to sign on to Kyoto, the United States will be the only large industrialized holdout. But with some countries, particularly oil-rich Canada, unable to meet their Kyoto goals and even some European Union governments struggling, the Bush administration endorses each nation's coming up with its own climate strategy.

"In climate, what matters in terms of producing results is the character of the national commitment, not the character of the international commitment," James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, told reporters earlier this fall.

The White House last week credited its policies, such as funding of new technologies, with a 1.5 percent drop in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 to 2006, although the Department of Energy attributed the trend to mild weather and high prices dampening demand. Numerous sources expected the Bush administration to counter its critics by announcing soon—perhaps while the parties convene in Bali—new regulatory proposals to force carmakers to reduce carbon emissions and to force refiners to increase the use of ethanol.