Fiddling While the World Burns

Like a distant tsunami that is only a few meters high in the deep ocean but rises dramatically as it reaches shallow coastal waters, the great wave of climate change has snuck up on people—and is now beginning to break. Climate change was first identified as a potential danger by a Swedish chemist in the late nineteenth century, but it was not until the late 1980s that scientists had enough evidence to conclude that this transformation was under way and presented a clear threat to humanity.

An American scientist, James Hansen of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, put climate change squarely on the agenda of policymakers on 23 June 1988. On that hot summer day, Hansen told a U.S. Senate Committee he was 99 percent certain that the year's record temperatures were not the result of natural variation. Based on his research, Hansen had concluded that the rising heat was due to the growing concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other atmospheric pollutants. "It's time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here."4

Hansen's words, joined with those of other scientists, echoed around the world. Within months government officials were beginning to consider steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with much of the focus on the kind of international agreement that would be needed to tackle this most global of problems. In 1992 the United Nations Framework Con vention on Climate Change was adopted by heads of state in Rio de Janeiro, and in 1997 the Kyoto Protocol, with its legally binding emissions limits for industrial countries, was negotiated.5

As the 1990s came to an end the world appeared to be moving to tackle the largest and most complex problem humanity has ever faced. But fossil fuel interests mobilized a counterattack—pressuring governments and creating confusion about the science of climate change. Taking advantage of the inevitable uncertainties and caveats contained in leading climate assessments, a handful of climate skeptics—many of them PhDs with oil industry funding—managed to position climate change as a scientific debate rather than a grim reality.

The climate change skeptics had their greatest influence in the United States, putting it at loggerheads with the European Union, which since the early 1990s has been the strongest advocate of action on climate change. In November 2000, in the waning days of the Clinton administration, climate negotiators met in The Hague with the intention of finalizing details of the Kyoto Proto-col—which in principle had been agreed to three years earlier. Two weeks of intense discussions concluded with an agonizing all-night session that ended in failure. Distrust and miscommunication between American and European negotiators were at the heart of this historic diplomatic failure—a failure that became more significant a short time later when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Al Gore would not be the next President of the United States.6

In the months that followed, many remained optimistic: before his election, President George W. Bush had indicated his support for addressing the climate problem and working cooperatively with other countries. Two months later—under heavy pressure

The Perfect Storm from Vice President Cheney and the oil industry—he executed an abrupt U-Turn, rejecting the Kyoto Protocol outright and throwing negotiations into a tailspin. Europe, Canada, Japan, and Russia were shocked into completing and ultimately ratifying the Kyoto Protocol in the following years, but time and political momentum had been lost. More significantly, the unilateral actions of the U.S. government deepened North-South fissures on climate change—a divide that has now become the largest obstacle to progress.7

Negotiating Essentials

Negotiating Essentials

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