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U.S. and Canada obstruct Bali talks

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: The U.N. Climate Change Conference at Bali is considered the next step in fostering a new international treaty to combat global warming. After almost two weeks of open dialogue, the conference finds itself in a deadlock between the European Union, the United States, Canada, and Japan. The E.U. is demanding that industrial nations lower their emissions of greenhouse gases by 25 to 40 percent by the year 2020, while the U.S., Canada, and Japan are refusing to accept concrete targets. Ben Wikler, climate change campaign director for avaaz.org, joins us from Bali, leaning against wicker that looks like very Baliesque, Ben. Your organization and some other NGOs in the last couple of days have been issuing an award called the Fossil Award, I believe it is. And Canada and the U.S. are tied for being the most obstructionist nations in the Bali process. Tell us why they got the awards, and give us an update on what’s happening in Bali.

BEN WIKLER, CAMPAIGN DIRECTOR, AVAAZ.ORG, VIA BROADBAND FROM BALI: Well, traditionally, or at least for the past few years, the United States has cleaned up in the Fossil Awards, which are given to the countries that do the most to impede progress at these negotiations. Bush actually won the Fossil of the Century Award in 2005. But this year, the U.S. was behaving itself at the beginning and Canada was doing most of the obstruction. There are a few different issues that are sort of the centre of contention at these negotiations. One of them is these cuts by 2020 of 25 to 40 percent. And Canada has been working in a number of different ways to try to remove any reference to those targets from the texts. Canada has been asking for special exceptions to be made for countries that would be unduly burdened by binding emissions reductions like that. We have lots of tar sands that could provide a lot of money for us if oil prices keep rising.

JAY: On Canada, it should be noted that our current government, led by Prime Minister Harper, that his party is very rooted in Alberta and tar sands money, and the Harper government’s been very, very connected to oil sands lobbying. I’m not so sure he really reflects Canadian public opinion right now, but certainly he is in government.

WIKLER: That’s right. The Harber government really is not representing most Canadians here. At my organization, Avaaz, we emailed our Canadian members about Harper’s obstructionism at this conference, and in the space of about forty-eight hours, 65,000 of them signed a petition to Harper urging him to allow progress at these talks. Even among the Canadians that are here, there’s a tremendous sort of sense of at first frustration, and now it’s kind of outrage, about the Canadian government working arm-in-arm with Bush to make sure that these talks don’t result in any really substantive treaty.

JAY: That must be partly to do with the fact that it’s a lot more carbon emissions to get the oil out of the tar sands than it is to pump oil out of Saudi Arabian deserts. But what do you say to the Canadians who say we will be disproportionately affected in terms of our economy? Certainly, the tar sands is seen as one of the main pillars of the future of the Canadian economy.

WIKLER: Well, I mean, it’s certainly true that Canada would not reap the same type of windfall that they currently sort of have a shot at reaping if they were to receive all the benefit that the tar sands have to offer. But the fact is that Canadians have a very high standard of living compared to most of the world. Canada has high per capita emissions and has benefited it greatly from its historical emissions. And a little bit of belt tightening, it’s not as though Canada will be plunged into penury for having to live in the same world as everyone else and not have a sudden, huge new wealth appear out of nowhere. There’s no question that the costs of dealing with climate change are going to be to some extent unequal, but the fact is that the burdens of adapting to climate change are also unequal, and Canada’s definitely not paying the highest price in that regard. It’s places like right here in Indonesia, actually, where islands are going to be sinking below sea levels, where agricultural output is being devastated by extreme weather patterns related to climate change. So the other side of the coin for Canada is that the worst costs that climate change that’s already occurring inflicts, those aren’t visited on Canada either.

JAY: For people in Indonesia and Bangladesh and across Africa, when they look towards what’s happening in the U.S., the positioning of the Bush administration, but even in the election campaign itself, they must be wondering how the heck is this not a bigger issue in the U.S.?

WIKLER: They are. Tonight Al Gore gave his big speech. He just received the Nobel Prize on Monday. He arrived at the conference. He’s sort of the biggest star here.

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AL GORE: We ought to feel a sense of exhilaration that we are the people alive at a moment in history when we can make all the difference. That’s who you are. You have everything you need. We have everything we need, save perhaps political will. But political will is a renewable resource.

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In his speech he said, I know that this isn’t the type of thing that diplomats say, but I’m not representing the United States in an official capacity, so I can speak an inconvenient truth. The United States is the biggest obstruction to progress at these talks. And the room exploded in applause. Then he said, he used a hockey metaphor, he quoted the hockey player who said he didn’t pass to where the other players are, he passes to where other players will be. And he urged the world essentially to negotiate as though the U.S. government has been replaced; knowing that Bush is going to be out of office soon and it’s quite likely that the next U.S. administration is going to have a very different view on climate change.

JAY: Do you think he’s right? Do you see that in the candidates? Is there any serious programmatic talk amongst the Democratic Party candidates?

WIKLER: In the United States right now the idea of a sort of green energy future, of a new green economy, is right up there with health care and the war in Iraq as one of the core issues that people care about. Part of it is to do with the link between oil and all the kind of terrorism and international conflicts that the U.S. is embroiled in. Energy independence is a big buzz word in the United States. But part of it’s also about climate change, and there’s a very palpable feeling that this is a defining crisis that the United States has sort of abdicated its global leadership role by failing to confront this crisis. And people across the U.S. are eager for a change of course on it.

JAY: But concretely, what’s being proposed by the Democratic Party? The energy bill that’s just passed Congress, and filibustered in the Senate the last couple of days, they’re going to take another go at it. And it’s called a good step because at least it’s a step. But do you think that bill really can take a serious move towards hitting the kind of targets that are being proposed in Bali?

WIKLER: They say the greatest journey begins with a single step. This is maybe two thirds of a step, the energy bill in the U.S. It’s novel and it’s remarkable in that it’s moving in the right direction. The energy bills that have passed under the Bush administration have generally been subsidies to oil companies rather than attempts to actually shift the way energy is produced and consumed. But the bill, it’s not going to have a major impact on the total amount of carbon emissions from the United States. The U.S. contributes about a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gases. That’s about 2 billion metric tons per year. And the impact of this bill’s going to be measured in the tens of millions. So it’s nothing to sneeze at, but it’s not on par with the crisis.

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