Why This Matters

Klein and Beutler express some skepticism about the significance of the High-Level Meeting happening today, and they make some good points. What's happening is basically a form of kabuki. But I talked to a UN official yesterday who was able to explain the significance of the kabuki, and it's a pretty important thing.

The basic shape of the issue goes back to Kyoto and the late 1990s. Everyone knew that that agreement wasn't nearly tough enough to take care of the problem. But the thinking was that if you could get everyone to commit to the principle "reduce carbon emissions to halt global warming" that when the initial measures agreed to proved inadequate, governments would be compelled to step things up. Then came George W. Bush and his decision to "un-sign" Kyoto. Not only did that prevent the USA from moving forward, but it essentially got all the other governments of the world off the hook. With Bush so intransigent of course nothing was going to work.

Meanwhile, there's a need for a successor treaty to Kyoto to govern the world after 2012. The thinking is that it takes two years to negotiate a treaty, and then two years to get it ratified. Thus, we need to start next year at a scheduled meeting in Bali, Indonesia. But if the world's governments sit down in Bali next year cold after years of inactivity, then nothing's going to happen. So there's a kind of kabuki meeting happening this year to get things rolling. Since nothing's going to happen, Bush is willing to participate -- Condi Rice will be at the formal meeting, and Bush himself at an informal one with other heads of government this evening -- but that itself signifies that the process is getting rolling again. The idea, then, is that the next administration will be able to hit the ground running, stepping into a process that's already under way.