Saturday, December 10, 2005

Refusing to Sit at the Table

The Bush administration's representatives at the United Nations climate change conference in Montreal first walked out of the proceedings because they were angry about the wording of a draft statement; then the U.S. backed down from that stance after being hit with stinging criticism from the international community and at home.

After American delegates walked out of the United Nations climate change conference in Montreal over the wording of a draft statement calling for international co-operation on the issue, they signed a revised version after making only 'trivial' changes.

The move came as 157 other countries agreed separately to extend the Kyoto international agreement aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The US has not joined Kyoto, so it was not involved in the talks on its future.

Environmental campaigners hailed the Kyoto breakthrough as 'a historic step forwards'. Tony Juniper, executive director of Friends of the Earth, said: "The rest of the world is right to push ahead and leave the obstructive US behind."

One senior British official said the US negotiators shifted their position on the joint statement because the Bush administration was stung by criticism of its stance at the meeting in the US press. "Washington are really feeling the heat on this," the official said.

The chief US negotiator Harlan Watson walked out of talks on Friday after complaining that draft text proposals amounted to a call for negotiations which President George W Bush opposes.

Baffling some foreign ministers, Watson told the high-level meeting: "If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it's a duck." US green campaigners quickly bought all the plastic ducks they could find in surrounding shops and handed them out to delegates and the media.

Walking out of the conference was the second tantrum the Bush administration threw over the Montreal meeting. Earlier, before the conference started, Bush administration officials found out that former Pres. Clinton was scheduled to speak at the conference. They immediately told the conference organizers that, if Clinton was allowed to speak, the U.S. would refuse to ever again consider the possibility of softening its opposition to the Kyoto Protocols.

The threat set in motion a flurry of frantic back-channel negotiations between conference organizers and aides to Bush and Clinton that lasted into the night on Thursday, and at one point Clinton flatly told his advisers that he was going to pull out and not deliver the speech, the source said.

"It's just astounding," the source told New York Magazine. "It came through loud and clear from the Bush people -- they wouldn't sign the deal if Clinton were allowed to speak." Clinton spokesman Jay Carson confirmed the dustup took place and that the former president had decided not to go out of fear of harming the negotiations, but Carson declined to comment further.

On Friday afternoon, Clinton did end up speaking at the conference, a global audience of diplomats, environmentalists, and others who were in the final hours of a two-week gathering devoted to discussing the future of the protocol, the existing emissions-controls agreement. In 1997, Al Gore, then vice-president, helped negotiate the protocol, but it never passed the Senate. In 2001, it was formally renounced by the Bush administration, which argues that cutting greenhouse-gas emissions would hurt the American economy.

The U.S. didn't have enough leverage to make its threat stick, since everyone knows the Bushies are unalterably opposed to cutting greenhouse-gas emissions. Saying, "Well, if you let Clinton speak, we'll really never change our minds!" just wasn't convincing enough.

Or maybe the U.S. government's insistence on micromanaging every aspect of life on planet Earth is just getting old for the rest of the world. Whatever the reason, the conference organizers called the Bushies' bluff -- and the U.S. backed down.

The contretemps started late Thursday afternoon, when the Associated Press ran a story saying that Clinton had been added at the last minute to the gathering's speaking schedule at the request of conference organizers. According to the source, barely minutes after the news leaked, conference organizers called Clinton aides and told them that Bush-administration officials were displeased.

"The organizers said the Bush people were threatening to pull out of the deal," the source said. After some deliberation between Clinton and his aides, Clinton decided he wouldn't speak, added the source: "President Clinton immediately said, 'There's no way that I'm gonna let petty politics get in the way of the deal. So I'm not gonna come.' That's the message [the Clinton people] sent back to the organizers."

But the organizers of the conference didn't want to accept a Bush-administration dictum. They asked Clinton that he go ahead with the speech. "The organizers decided to call the administration's bluff," the source said. "They said, 'We're gonna push [the Bush people] back on this.' "

Several hours went by, and at the Clinton Foundation's holiday party on Thursday night, the former president and his aides still thought they weren't going to Montreal. "The staff that was supposed to go with him had canceled their travel plans," the source said.

At around 8:30 p.m., organizers called Clinton aides and said that they'd successfully called the bluff of Bush officials, adding that Bush's aides had backed off and indicated that Clinton's appearance wouldn't in fact have adverse diplomatic consequences.

Several hours after all these tense negotiations had been resolved, the U.S. delegation's chief, Paula Dobriansky, issued a statement saying that events such as Clinton's speaking "are useful opportunities to hear a wide range of views on global climate change."

"They were trying to clean up the mess," the source said. ...

All the Bush administration has succeeded in doing with its antics in Montreal is to allow itself to be left even further behind in the dust while the rest of the world moves forward. It's one thing to be part of a principled minority -- but the U.S. was literally the only country among the 157 at the conference that doesn't want even to address the issue of global warming.

The United States found itself alone Friday in resisting any new international talks to address Earth's warming climate as representatives of 157 nations moved to wrap up two weeks of meetings on the issue hours after a dramatic midnight walkout by the U.S. negotiators.

Brushing aside the Bush administration's fierce protests, all the industrialized nations except the United States and Australia were near an agreement Friday night to embark on a new round of formal talks aimed at setting new mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions after 2012, when the existing pact known as the Kyoto Protocol expires.

In a separate set of negotiations aimed at extending a second, voluntary climate compact, the United States was the only nation that was still resisting even nonbinding talks.

The agreement to begin a process that would extend the Kyoto pact underscored how many nations now see global warming as the world's most serious environmental threat. The Bush administration disavowed the Kyoto Protocol in 2001 and has opposed any the kind of mandatory limits on carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels, arguing that research, new technology and market forces are the best way to address warming linked to the buildup of greenhouse gases.

If the U.S. continues refusing to sit at the table because it doesn't like the food, the silverware, the tablecloth, or the company, by the time it gets hungry enough to appreciate the value of cooperation, all the food will be eaten and the guests will be long gone.

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