The United States went on the defensive Wednesday as much of the world pushed for redoubled efforts to rein in carbon emissions and fight climate change. Canada, host of a 190-nation U.N. climate conference, worked to find a compromise route forward.
Arctic natives, whose icy homelands have begun to melt, announced at the gathering that they were filing an international human rights complaint against the United States, to try to pressure Washington to cap “greenhouse gases.”
Bangladesh Ambassador Rafiq Ahmed Khan, whose low-lying land faces future flooding from seas rising with global warming, spoke on behalf of the poorest nations.
“Only strong political will can show the way,” he told delegates. “These impacts are felt mostly by the people who are poor and most vulnerable.”
It was the first annual U.N. climate conference since the Kyoto Protocol took effect in February, requiring 35 industrialized countries to curb emissions of carbon dioxide and five other gases that act like a greenhouse trapping heat in the atmosphere.
Among major developed nations, only the United States and Australia reject that agreement, worked out in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, and designed to produce an average 5 percent reduction of emissions below 1990 levels by 2012.
Next focus: Controlling emissions after ’12
Under the protocol, talks must now begin on emissions controls after 2012. Canadian Environment Minister Stephane Dion this week proposed a plan for “discussions to explore and analyze approaches for long-term cooperative action to address climate change,” with a deadline for agreement by 2008.
The U.S. delegation, with three days left in the two-week conference, has thus far rejected joining such global talks, preferring to deal with other governments on a bilateral or regional basis — and on voluntary approaches to reducing emissions.
“We see no change in current conditions that would result in a negotiated agreement consistent with the U.S. approach,” said Harlan Watson, chief U.S. negotiator here.
But Dion suggested acceptable language might still be found to get the Americans on board. Closed-door talks “have been frank and productive,” he told delegates at Wednesday’s open session. “There is an urgent need to send a signal to the world about the future.”
A broad scientific consensus agrees that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a byproduct of automobile engines, power plants and other fossil fuel-burning industries, has contributed significantly to the past century’s global temperature rise — of 0.7 degrees Celsius, or 1 degree Fahrenheit.
Huge possible impact
In October, NASA climatologists projected from thousands of temperature readings that 2005 would end as the warmest year globally since records were first kept in the mid-19th century.
The potential impacts are extensive: Small islands fear expanding and rising seas; poor nations face water shortages if warmth washes away glaciers; climate change may kill off traditional crops.
An authoritative, intergovernmental study last year found that rapid warming in the Arctic, by disrupting animal and plant life, already threatens “the destruction of the hunting and food-gathering culture of the Inuit in this century,” noted Paul Crowley of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, representing native northerners worldwide.
Crowley announced that the Inuit conference was filing a complaint with the Inter American Human Rights Commission seeking a decision pressuring the United States to act more urgently to avert climate change.
In 2000, the latest year for which statistics are available, the United States was by far the world’s leading greenhouse-gas emitter, accounting for 21 percent of the total.
Bush rejected protocol in 2001
President Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, saying limiting fuel burning would crimp the U.S. economy, and complaining that fast-growing economies such as China’s and India’s weren’t targeted under the accord.
China in 2000 accounted for almost 15 percent of emissions, but its per capita emissions were less than one-sixth that of the United States. The Canadians and others hope, however, that such major developing countries will take action on climate in the next phase.
Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, opening Wednesday’s high-level phase of the conference, addressed the American economic argument.
“Surely we realize by now that a greater cost will be exacted if we lack the will or tenacity to change,” he said to loud applause.
Twenty-five leading U.S. economists, including three Nobel laureates, wrote to Bush on Wednesday reiterating that argument. One, Columbia University’s Geoff Heal, told reporters here that U.S. compliance with the Kyoto mandate would have shrunk the U.S. gross domestic product by 1 percent. “That’s one-quarter of our economic growth, a small amount to pay,” he said.
Instead of mandatory controls, the Bush administration has focused its climate efforts on long-term development of energy-saving technology, and on voluntary agreements to restrain emissions growth.