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Last week, the United States gathered representatives from 17 industrial nations in Honolulu to discuss global warming, excluding the public and press from the official meetings. Undaunted, environmental activists, young people and teachers demonstrated their discontents with the present U.S. stance that balks at binding emissions limits. On Wednesday, young people, including preschoolers, were out chanting, ‘No more global warming,’ as they drew in blue chalk along Mo’ili’ili sidewalks to show where a one meter rise in sea level would reach.

Throughout the two days, the contrast between the closed official sessions and open, unofficial teach-ins was a lesson in itself.

The Bush Administration convened the East-West Center gatherings on Jan. 30 and 31 as the Major Economies Meeting on Energy Security and Climate Change (MEMESCC), MEM for short. Seventeen of the bigger polluter nations attended to discuss how best to deal with their self-destructive tendencies. The list of worthies included Brazil, Canada, China, European Union, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, United Kingdom, the United States and the United Nations.

On Tuesday evening, Governor Linda Lingle hosted a MEM reception for delegates, legislators and local energy wonks at Washington Place. Some 45 protesters gathered along Beretania Street to object to the U.S. refusal to set emissions limits and to air complaints about errant local responses to global warming. With commuter traffic honking support, rain was overflowing the gutters and splashing up onto the sidewalks–a preview of coming attractions for sea level rise.

With Honolulu Electric Co. (HECO) set to be the first utility anywhere to use palm oil to generate electricity, protesters were linking local electrical demand to global warming and social disasters in South East Asia. Fulbright scholar Stephanie Fried carried a sign showing a NASA photo of forests going up in smoke, and said she’d been there to see farmers and poor people in Malaysia and Borneo being threatened and run off their land to clear it for palm oil plantations. ‘Burning forests release massive amounts of CO2, making palm oil use an ecological and a social disaster,’ Fried said. But there’s still time to avert it, as the planned Imperium biodiesel/palm oil refinery that would supply HECO has run into a financing impasse.

As Honolulu skies opened up with more rain, and an elderly protester muttered, ‘Climate change.’

Greeting Major Economies Members, Island-Style

Next morning, at the conference kickoff, the Governor said that it was about energy security and climate change, global issues that ‘transcend borders and must transcend politics Ö about the planet’s future and those generations who will come after us.’

By mid-morning, MEM delegates closeted in the Imin Center were listening to Yvo De Boer, UN Climate Change Framework Executive Secretary. He was urging them to get their minds around global warming as the biggest issue facing mankind, no small task.

Across the street, in front of Kennedy Theatre at the University of Hawai’i, a man in a green rain slicker was chanting through a bull horn, ‘The whole world is watching,’ while another fellow in a mask, snorkel and fins traipsed about suggesting the clothing selection we’ll likely need to get to work as sea level rise arrives. Some 40 people chanted and waved banners. Four Honolulu off-duty cops squinted through the rain at signs reading, ‘No Palm Oil,’ ‘People’s Needs, Not Corporate Greed’ and ‘Your Delay is Washing Our Future Away.’ One colorful poster showed George W. Bush in caricature pouring gasoline on a flaming globe, announcing in large red letters: ‘Global Warming BUSH.’

‘What will people think when TheBus becomes TheBoat, and The Zoo becomes The Slough?’ one protester said, referring to the inundation of Waikiki, the docks, coastal highways and island airports. Life of the Land’s Henry Curtis said, ‘We need to highlight that the world must deal with climate change. Coal, oil, nuclear and agrofuels are not part of the solution.’

Inside A Major Economies Meeting

The European Union (EU) had initially threatened to boycott MEM in Honolulu, having been disappointed with the December UN talks in Bali where the United States refused to agree to binding emissions limits for greenhouse gases (GHG). James Connaughton, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and his State Department partner Paula Dobriansky had been loudly booed at the final meeting.

With press banned from the MEM discussions, day one otherwise remained pretty much a mystery.

From A Children’s Crusade to a Teach-in

By late Wednesday afternoon, squads of the aforementioned protester toddlers, accompanied by moms, some with babes in arms, had their Children’s Crusade underway. Advancing out of Old Stadium Park, the tots chanted and chalked sidewalks along with other ‘Blue Line Project’ demonstrators, as residents stared, some in apparent disbelief.

At the end of MEM day one, a Teach-in at Richardson Law School overflowed with some 140 green enthusiasts eager to hear local scientists, grad students, environmental leaders, legislators and spiritual advocates. Senator Ron Menor read from a Hawai’i Legislature resolution requesting that the Bush administration move now to required emissions limits. Hawai’i last year joined California and New Jersey with state emissions standards, which are presently being developed out of our recent Global Warming Solutions Act, which mandates reductions of releases to 1990 levels by 2020.

Sierra Club’s Jeff Mikulina had everyone laughing, yet left them moved by his call for greater awareness and personal action against global warming, and Hawai’i’s opportunity to establish a clean energy economy powered by wind, solar and ocean sources. Showing how individuals can make a difference, Grad student Shannah Trevenna recounted how students had taken charge of conserving electricity in UH’s Saunders Hall.

Noting the warm response of the crowd after two-plus hours of speeches, UH law professor Denise Antolini indicated that, MEM or not, she would schedule another such event next year.

Reaching A Conclusion?

A wag once said, ‘If all the economists in the world were laid end to end, they wouldn’t reach a conclusion.’ Thursday’s final MEM left somewhat the same impression. Weary delegates at the final press meeting issued the pro forma thanks to the United States for hosting, followed by a round of cliched diplomatic euphemisms about candid, frank and constructive talks, understanding one another’s differences and balancing climate stabilization against economic requirements. All of it nonetheless felt quite warm and friendly, with genuine hope pervading the room.

German delegate Mathias Machnig reminded everyone that, ‘The nations represented here use 80 percent of the world’s energy and are responsible for 80 percent of the world’s emissions.’ To which the European Commission’s Artur Runge-Metzger added, ‘The less we cut emissions, the more disastrous the impact of global warming. The IPCC makes it clear we must halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.’

U.S. host James Connaughton sat silent and deadpan, looking like he’d just been dealt a lousy poker hand.

English delegate Phil Woolas added, ‘This process is to plan, organize and implement the second industrial revolution. As such, it will be a major boost to the UN Climate Framework.’ A second industrial revolution! What that would entail remained an open question. For the last decade, however, thoughtful observers like Worldwatch’s Lester Brown and Rocky Mountain Institute’s Amory Lovin have been explaining how that can happen (for more info, see Resources list, below).

There were smiles in the room at the announcement of an agreement between the EU and the United States to ask the world Trade Organization to cut tariffs sizably on the distribution of clean energy and emissions-cutting technologies.

The evening peaked when the elegant French delegate, Brice LaLonde, said with considerable feeling, ‘The position of the U.S. is changing. They still lag, and we want more, but it’s a good start.’

Arms moving and voice tense, LaLonde capped the evening with some private comments as he exited. ‘Global warming is the most important and terrifying thing facing mankind. Now we must urgently invent a whole new international governmental system to deal with it. The EU has shown bravery in deciding to lead the way with binding emissions cuts. Now we need the U.S. to set an emissions goal joining all developed countries,’ LaLonde said.

With the UN Framework aimed at a binding, measurable global emissions agreement in 2009, the door had opened a little further. But the question remained: Would these giant fossil fuel producers and users act in time to keep Hawai’i and other low-lying lands above water? And would the United States at last begin leading instead of balking at measurable emissions limits?

With nine emissions-cutting measures offered in Congress this year, the Lieberman-Warner bill shows the most promise, although it falls short of the emissions cuts scientists say we must have. Express your feelings on the need for effective binding emissions cuts to Congress. After all, the delegates at MEM were talking about our future.n
Paul Berry is a free lance author and former teacher whose latest book, Uncertain Steps: The Prospects for Contemporary Globalization, co-authored with Dr. Deane Neubauer, will publish this year. Berry has written film documentaries and two books on island history.