New York Times
December 19, 2004
BUENOS AIRES, Dec. 18 - Two weeks of negotiations at a United Nations conference here on climate change ended early Saturday with a weak pledge to start limited, informal talks on ways to slow down global warming, after the
The main focus was to discuss the Kyoto protocol on global warming, which goes into force on Feb. 16 and will require industrial nations to make substantial cuts in their emissions of so-called greenhouse gases. But another goal had been to draw the United States, which withdrew from the accord in 2001, back into discussions about ways to mitigate climate change after 2012, when the Kyoto agreement expires.
Governments that are already committed to reducing emissions under the Kyoto plan used diplomatic language to express their disappointment at the American position. Environmental groups, however, were more critical of what they characterized as obstructionism.
"This is a new low for the United States, not just to pull out, but to block other countries from moving ahead on their own path," said Jeff Fiedler, an observer representing the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's almost spiteful to say, 'You can't move ahead without us.' If you're not going to lead, then get out of the way."
Because the United States rejects the Kyoto accord, it cannot take part except as an observer in talks on global warming held under that format. It has, however, signed a broader 1992 convention on climate change that is based on purely voluntary measures, and the European Union and others had hoped to organize seminars within that framework.
But the United States maintains it is too early to take even that step, and initially insisted that "there shall be no written or oral report" from any seminars. In the end, all that could be achieved was an agreement to hold a single workshop next year to "exchange information" on climate change.
"We are very flexible, but not at all costs," said Pieter van Geel, state secretary of the environment for the
Delegations and observer groups also criticized what they described as an effort led by Saudi Arabia and supported by the United States to hamper approval of so-called adaptation assistance. That term refers to payments that richer countries would make, mostly to poor, low-lying island states to help them cope with the impacts of climate change.
The group that would receive the aid includes Pacific Ocean nations like Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia, and Caribbean nations like the
But the issue was complicated by Saudi Arabia's insistence that the aid include compensation to oil-producing countries for any fall in revenues that may result from the reduction in the use of carbon fuels. The European Union, which had announced its intention to provide $400 million a year to an assistance fund, strongly opposed any such provision.
Harlan Watson, a senior member of the American delegation, would not specifically discuss his position other than to say there are "always tos and fros in any negotiation." He described the results as "the most comprehensive adaptation package that has ever been completed," and "something that satisfied all parties."
The United States also stood virtually alone in challenging the scientific assumptions underlying the Kyoto protocol. "Science tells us that we cannot say with any certainty what constitutes a dangerous level of warming, and therefore what level must be avoided," Paula Dobriansky, under secretary of state for global affairs and the leader of the American delegation, said in her remarks to the conference.
At a side meeting organized by insurance companies, however, concerns were expressed about rapidly rising payments resulting from more severe and frequent hurricanes, heat waves and flooding. Representatives of major European reinsurance companies described 2004 as "the costliest year for the insurance industry worldwide" and warned that worse is likely to come.
Thomas Loster, a climate expert at the Munich Re insurance group, estimated that the cost of disasters will rise to as much as $95 billion annually, compared to an average of $70 billion over the last decade. Experts here acknowledge that extreme weather patterns have always existed, but maintain that their frequency and intensity has been increasing because of global warming.
"There is more and more evidence building up that indicates that whatever is going on is not natural and is no longer within the realm of variability," said Alden Meyer, policy director of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Enough research has been done, especially in the Arctic, he added, to establish that "we are starting to see the impact of human interference" and "a clear pattern of human-induced climate change."
Those sharply different perceptions led to a clash even over what language should be used in discussing disaster relief. Bush administration emissaries opposed the use of the phrase "climate change," employed since the days of the first Bush administration, in favor of "climate variability," a much more nebulous term.