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Do not be downhearted about the outcome of the Bali talks. They did not deliver the binding commitments to cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that are desperately needed, and as a result millions may die. But they showed us the human race trying to grow up and take responsibility for its common future.

It doesn’t feel like that, of course. It feels like 15,000 politicians, diplomats, journalists and activists flew across continents to sit in Bali and achieve very little. Disappointment and even anger are not out of order, for the commitment to early and deep emission cuts (25 to 40 per cent by 2020) that most developed countries wanted to see in the draft treaty had to be dropped in order to keep the United States of America involved at all.

The Bush administration no longer denies that climate change is a problem, but it is still determined to kill any international deal that involves concrete and legally binding targets. The US produces about a quarter of the world’s emissions, so no deal that excludes it would work. Moreover, the developing countries where emissions are growing fastest, particularly China and India, will never accept obligations of their own while the US accepts none. So the American delegation had to be kept on board no matter how obstructive it was.

It was amazingly obstructive. There must be no targets, there must be no timetables, there must be no numbers at all in the “roadmap” for the next two years of negotiations on a successor to the Kyoto treaty, insisted chief US negotiator Harlan Watson. Why not? Because “once numbers appear in the text, it prejudges the outcome and will tend to drive the negotiations in one direction.” Yes, but if everybody’s shared goal is to cut emissions and avoid catastrophic climate change, what’s wrong with that?

Missing numbers

It was Al Gore who saved the day with a speech urging the conference to be patient. “My own country, the United States, is mainly responsible for obstructing progress at Bali,” he admitted, but “over the next two years the United States is going to be somewhere it is not now....One year and forty days from today there will be a new (presidential) inauguration in the United States.”

“If you decide to continue the progress that has been made here... on the hope and with the expectation will be able to fill in that blank (with the help of a different position from the United States), then you can make great progress here.” Bush will be gone. Even though time is short, you have to wait him out.

The conference took Gore’s advice and removed the numbers from the text. Even then, astonishingly, the US delegation declared that it could not support the revised text — and a chorus of boos rang out. A delegate from Papua New Guinea stood up and told the US delegation: “If you’re not willing to lead, please get out of the way.” After a short huddle, the US delegation announced that it would support the revised text after all.

So there is a “roadmap” for the next two years of negotiations, although it has no hard numbers in it. Low-level meetings will continue over the next year, but the next big conference, scheduled for Poland next December, will probably be allowed to slip by a couple of months so that the new US administration is in office. And then, hopefully, they can put the numbers back in.

There is no guarantee that the emissions cuts they finally agree upon in 2009 will be big enough, or that everybody will meet their commitments. Runaway global warming is a serious possibility, in which case we may be facing megadeaths by mid-century. But Bali was not a futile or a shameful exercise. It was six billion people in 180 separate countries trying to cope with a shared danger in a cooperative way. It was actually quite inspiring, and even fifty years ago it would have been inconceivable.

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