America’s environmentalism retains its amateur status

BALI, Indonesia

As readers of this column know, I have a rule that there is a simple way to test whether any Arab-Israeli peace deal is real or not: If you need a Middle East expert to explain it to you, it’s not real. I now have the same rule about global climate agreements: If you need an environmental expert to explain it to you, it’s not real.

I needed 10 experts to explain to me the Bali climate agreement — and I was there! I’m still not quite sure what it adds up to. I’m not opposed to forging a regime with 190 countries for reducing carbon emissions, but my gut tells me that both the North and South Poles will melt before we get it to work.

There is a better way. Just make America the model of how a country can grow prosperous, secure, innovative and healthy by becoming the most clean, energy-efficient nation in the world — and let everyone follow us.

Unfortunately, the Bush team has not been able to lead on this issue — for two reasons. First, its credibility is shot, even though if you add up all the clean energy, biofuel and other programs the administration has initiated over the past two years, plus the half-a-loaf energy bill spearheaded by the Democrats that the president is scheduled to sign today, they’re not a zero anymore.


There was a revealing encounter here Thursday between the U.S. negotiating team and environmentalists that was worthy of pay-per-view. The American team was giving its big briefing. The room was packed with activists from around the world. They came loaded to carve up the Americans, who, it was just assumed, had to be stupid because they represented the Bush administration.

And then something unexpected happened. For 90 minutes, Andy Karsner, who runs the Department of Energy’s renewable energy programs, James Connaughton, who heads White House climate policy, and their colleagues put on a PowerPoint performance that was riveting in its understanding of the climate problem and the technologies needed to solve it. Their mastery of the subject was so impressive that it left this room full of global activists emotionally confused: On the one hand, it was obvious that these U.S. officials really knew their stuff, yet on the other, I’d bet not a single person there believed they reflected the true Bush policy.

As if reading the minds of everyone there, Malini Mehra, the chief executive of the Centre for Social Markets, an Indian activist group, took the microphone and, in so many words, asked the Bush aides: Who are you and what planet did you come from? It could not possibly be from planet Bush.

"Anyone who has been listening to the news on climate change knows that there has been one message from this administration — that any serious action on climate change threatens the U.S. economy and our way of life," Mehra said to me later.

So to now hear these American technocrats "present what was a thoughtful analysis that made sense, flies in the face of what we have come to know about this administration," she added.

A lot of this is the price America is paying for the gratuitous way President Bush trashed the Kyoto treaty in 2001, without presenting any alternative for six years. Message to world: "Get lost. We only care about ourselves."

So now, when both Bush and Congress have moved a little, few people believe even that is for real. As Irwandi Yusuf, the governor of Indonesia’s Aceh province, bluntly said to me: "We don’t believe the Americans in this administration."

The other reason we can’t be a model is that whatever the U.S. is now doing to address the global warming challenge, it is not transformational. It is an incremental approach to a scale problem that can only be solved by triggering massive innovation in clean power. And without a price signal — a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system — to make it profitable to invest enormous sums, long term, in new clean technologies, it will not happen at scale.


The Bush team loves new technologies, but not the price signals needed to initiate them. By the way, finance or energy ministers who deal with price signals weren’t even at the Bali convention, which was dominated by environmental regulators.

"This is a problem of economic transformation, not environmental regulation," said Glenn Prickett, senior vice president at Conservation International. (Disclosure: My wife is on its board.) "The transformation needed will require far more than just passing one law or signing one treaty. It will require the same level of focus and initiative that the Bush administration is devoting to the war on terror. No political leader in the U.S. is approaching this issue yet with anywhere near the seriousness required."

So I still don’t know what Bali was about, but I do know that it was incremental, not transformational — and incrementalism, when it comes to clean energy, is just a hobby.

Thomas Friedman is a columnist for the New York Times. Respond at

What To Read Next
Fundraising is underway to move the giant ball of twine from the Highland, Wisconsin, home of creator James Frank Kotera, who died last month at age 75, 44 years after starting the big ball.