Saturday, December 10, 2005

American Behavior at the Climate Change Conference

The Climate Change conference has ended in Canada, and the role that the American deligation played proved to be an embarrassment. It would be comforting to claim that only the Bush administration was embarrassed by these events. However, we must remember that their participation was a reflection of American culture. There is no escaping the fact that it was not just a few political leaders who were humiliated, but America itself.

The Rules of a Conference

I would like to propose that there are some moral principles governing the attitude that one should have when entering a conference or a meeting of any type. The first rule is to set aside the arrogance of assuming that you are the only one there who actually understands what is going on. The world is big enough and complex enough at this point that no one person can fully understand even a small section of it. Furthermore, there is the fact that individuals tend to magnify the importance of their concerns, while belitteling effects on others. Therefore, prudence and fairness both suggest that we bring different people together, each with their own pieces of the puzzle, to work on putting these pieces together to form a coherent picture.

This arrogance itself is a sin. Arrogant people are an actual threat to others. They pretend to know more than they know in fact, so their actions are commonly wrong. They care more about their concern then what affects others, so those mistakes tend to harm others. An attitude that makes somebody a threat to others is the very definition of a moral failing. Those who recognize their own limitations find it easier to listen to others, to accept advice, and to get it right.

I know that not everything said in committee is wise and prudent. That’s the point. Nobody walks into a meeting with all of the best ideas – ideas that cannot stand improvement from the input of others. Some of those ideas are better than others. Hopefully, by airing those ideas, the best will emerge.

However, the likelihood of this depends on the climate in which the meeting is held. If there is a dominant individual who will not hear anything he does not already believe is true, the meeting is a waste of time. If this is a collaborative effort among people who recognize that their different talents and potential for contribution, then something can come out of it.

The American presence that the global climate change conference in Canada was more like the first of these two examples. America entered as a senior partner that has already made up his mind and who is determined to view the meeting as a waste of time. He has no intention of listening to what others say or of considering their input.

Here is a hint: if you go into a meeting and everybody else at the meeting says that you are wrong, it is time to seriously consider the fact that you are wrong. It is time to throw away the arrogant assumption of infallibility and start to ask why nobody else can see the 'truth' that you believe.

America’s Representative

Let us start with the fact that, according to the Washington Post, Exxon-Mobile hand-picked Watson to participate in the negotiations, after which Bush named him the lead negotiator. Now, on the surface, I actually think that the energy industry should have people participating in these discussions. They have legitimate interests in the outcome and, though some may want to count the oil industry as the enemy, prudence and fairness work in both directions or they do not work at all.

However, this is premised on the assumption that the negotiator will aim at producing the best product available, and not that he will go there with the intent of sabotaging the meeting.

At one point, the American representatives walked out of the meeting. As the article states, “The walkout was widely seen here as the capstone of two weeks of American efforts to prevent any fresh initiatives from being discussed.” In other words, the Americans showed up with the intention to block progress, not to contribute to progress.

America’s stand brought Prime Minister Paul Martin of Canada to say, "To the reticent nations, including the United States, I say this: There is such a thing as a global conscience, and now is the time to listen to it." The Bush Administration, and some in Canada, called this a political stunt since Martin is in the middle of a campaign. However, this does not change the fact that this was a popular sentiment, widely and favorably repeated at the conference. Sometimes candidates can have the luxury of actually being right.

Maliciously Deceptive Use of Statistics

The Bush Administration has countered that it is working on an alternative strategy. Instead of emissions limits, it is funding energy-saving technology.

The Bush Administration also took credit for the fact that America’s greenhouse gas emissions actually went down from 2000 to 2003 by 0.8 percent. However, this is a maliciously deceptive use of statistics. Emissions reductions are what happen when an economy stalls and goes into recession. Factories close. People quit driving to work because they have no jobs to go to. They find ways to save money. The Bush Administration can take credit for this only if it is willing to say that it intionally caused the recession -- which I suspect the Bush Administration will not do.

This is indicative of the type of behavior we can expect from people are more interested in “perception management” than honest discussion. They want to manipulate our beliefs, and see nothing wrong with both taking credit for and denying responsibility for exactly the same set of facts depending on what is convenient at the moment.

The Bush Administration cannot argue that their stand is a matter of principle. As I commented in my blog entry The Tragedy of the Global Climate Commons, I find it surprising that those who claim to be friends of free enterprise mock free enterprise and defend what is effectively a communist (communal) system for dealing with greenhouse gas emissions. In this case, supporters of the Bush Administration mocked capitalism by handing out “emissions credits” printed on toilet paper.

Not only do we see arrogance in the way that the Bush Administration is dealing with the issue of climate change, we see more acts of malicious deception and "perception management" in what it takes credit for, and a lack of integrity as well.

Being Right

This is not a question of whether the Bush Administration is right in its approach to global warming. This is a question of how to decide on the best course of action.

Of course, everybody who enters a conference or a meeting does so with the assumption that they are right, and everybody at the meeting who disagrees with them is wrong. However, somebody has to be wrong. It shows a morally decent level of respect for others and a morally decent level of humility to admit that somebody else at the conference may have something useful to contribute, and a joint decision is the proof that everybody has had an opportunity to make their contribution.

In the end, one should leave the conference saying, “Okay, I obviously do not know everything, and maybe this will work.” One works with others to try to walk away with the best product, holding firmly to those things that one is the most certain of, and giving up those things that others seem the most certain of. This is the morally decent and respectable attitude to take.

Yet, few people who attended the Climate Change talks in Montreal were given much of a reason to see the United States as either morally decent or respectful. Instead, we showed them pompous arrogance, malicious deceit, and hypocrisy. We proved that America itself seems somewhat deficient in moral character.

Final Analysis

In the end, the Conference participants felt like they could work on a deal. They drew comfort from the fact that a large number of Americans showed up who gave them some reason to believe that there is still some good in this country, even if it is not reflected in its government. Their goal is to come up with a new set of objectives by 2012. By then, George Bush would be gone, and they are hoping that America can elect a better man as President. Not necessarily a Democrat, but somebody who can engage in civil dialogue with the rest of the world.

It would be nice.

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