Afsan Chowdhury on the U.N. Climate Change Conference at Bali
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: The U.N. Climate Change Conference in Bali ended last week in a surprising consensus among the 191 countries in attendance. The U.S., Canada, and Japan had all opposed binding targets of any kind for lowering carbon emissions until the final day of the negotiations, when they made a surprise U-turn by agreeing to at least putting binding targets on the agenda. How real is the success of this conference? Joining me in the studio is Afsan Chowdhury, a journalist who’s been studying climate change issues and recently completed a film, Who Cares If Bangladesh Drowns. Anyway, how do you assess the conference?
AFSAN CHOWDHURY, JOURNALIST: I think if you look at the whole conference as a whole, they had several stages. In the first two stages, it looked like the U.S. and Canada and Japan would scuttle the conference. And the final stages, they agreed at some point of time. And then, again, there was an unraveling on whatever they had agreed. In the end it came a bit as an anticlimax that they finally said, yes, we agree. But, of course, that meant that the major point that was being pushed by E.U., the European Union, that there should be binding targets on about 20, 25 to 40 percent cuts at 1990 level by 2020, was gone.
JAY: Yeah. I mean this is being billed now as if the U.S. and Canada backed down. But from what I can see, it’s the European Union that backed down. They were going to stick their heels in on having this very specific target to be talked about. Not that the agreement would come now, but this process that would culminate in 2009, that right now they wanted the commitment to say there will be binding targets of 20 to 40 percent by 2020. And they didn’t get it. And they agreed anyway.
CHOWDHURY: Not just that. The problem was that everyone recognizes there cannot be action without the United States. And this at this point of time is an admission that the world is being pulled, ruled, whatever you wish, by the United States.
JAY: So much of this comes down to American public opinion and to the extent the Americans themselves feel this urgency. And I wonder if by making this compromise, that what the E.U. has actually done is removed this as an issue in the U.S. elections instead of giving this the sense of urgency that if in fact the U.S. had stayed out of this and was blamed for it, then somehow perhaps it would have become an election issue.
CHOWDHURY: Yeah. But if you look at the situation before, there was no conversation at all. Right now, you know, what Al Gore and Senator Kerry and others did was to say, look, this is not the U.S., the state of the United States. This is the particular, one Bush administration. Wait for a regime change, and then things will be much better. This probably had some impact. Now, as others are saying, ultimately it gets down to the U.S. voters in the United States as to which way action will be taken against climate change.
JAY: And also very systemic issues. Is there any administration that’s going to take on the fossil fuel industry and the auto industry? And we haven’t seen that from Democratic Party governments in the past, at least.
CHOWDHURY: No one, because if you look at the war–. But that’s not something that’s just happening to the United States; that’s happening to wherever these industries are.
JAY: Yes, certainly, Canada has one of the worst records in the world on this.
CHOWDHURY: Or if you look at what the threats are coming to the auto industry, which is probably the most beleaguered industry at this point in time in the western world, because China and India are both waiting to get their foot into the auto sector. There is Japan already there. So auto industry is under huge pressure. So it’s not like they are flourishing. They are not. But the other problem is that the economics of climate change is something they really haven’t worked so well on. Now they need to figure that out. And I think somebody must be saying that if you look at the Stern report, that the investment in climate change makes sense economically. Forget doing it for the rest of the world; doing it for the industrial world is very important. Now, there must be strategic reasons, because if you look at the Bali report, you do not see United States doing anything other than going to that conference, and as this has been described as a wrecking ball—we will wreck the conference. They practically wrecked it. Why in the last moment they decided to do so, it’s a bit of a mystery, but at least the process is alive.
JAY: In the press release the United Nations released after the Bali conference, it quotes the IPCC report as saying that if things keep going the way they are, we could see as much as a six-degree increase in temperature, not just the two that everyone seems so concerned about, but even six degrees by the end of this century or early next century, which is really apocalyptic if one believes the science and what results from that much of a change. Do you see right now that there’s any real steps going, taking place? Because without real, binding targets I just don’t see how anything changes.
CHOWDHURY: There is no emergency. There is no sense of urgency. There is no sense of concern. And there’s this great denial about that climate change will pass us by, climate change will not really happen, is very obvious. That is what the problem is. But who is going to decide this? If you look at the developing countries, most of the people are so wretchedly poor they don’t even know what is climate change. They have no impact on the global decision making. Global decision making has now come down to only two or three countries and the people in these countries, if they know they can make a difference. Otherwise nobody else can make a difference. I mean, I really don’t think in human history we have reached a point where so many depend on the decisions of so few. It has never happened before.
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