Commentary: Climate issues are grounded in politics

Richard Hoover

I don’t mean to bore readers with personal factoids. Nevertheless, I might recall this: from Vienna as political adviser at the U S. Mission to the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency, I was sent as U.S. permanent representative to the U.N. Environmental Program (UNEP) in Nairobi, Kenya.

In fact, I took a familiarization trip to Nairobi before my confirmation there. It was early 1993. I called on my counterparts-to-be, ambassadors from India, Russia and others. Their themes were similar and overwhelming: global warming was killing humankind in 60 different ways, and the chief culprit was the United States of America. The U.S. would have to pay the rest of the world for the climatic disorders it had inflicted — heat, flood, drought, tornadoes, rising sea levels, etc. My colleagues-to-be pulled out charts and diagrams to show that the United States was the leading polluter. Therefore, the U.S. not only had to cut back its carbon footprint, but to pay up!

Truth to tell, it was the first time I had heard the term “global warming.”

Nevertheless, in full ignorance, I had minimum smarts to ask my counterparts what India, Russia, China, etc. planned to do, when would they reduce their own carbon footprints for the human good. Their answers were all the same (as they are today): when their countries catch up economically with the United States, when the “playing field is leveled,” they will cooperate by cutting back on their emissions. (Note:
even today, whenever I hear that “leveling the playing field” bromide, I cringe, knowing that someone is about to receive, undeservedly, the short end!).

When I took my seat at UNEP sessions, the U.S. was hammered fairly regularly for its broad carbon footprint. The Russians and some of the disgruntled former Eastern European satellite states joined in, still bitter, I reckoned, over Cold War defeat. Romania, let it be remembered, defended the U.S. 100 percent. There was also tremendous anti-U.S. environmental feeling coming from Asian representatives — especially from India, China and Singapore.

I remember how painful it was back then, from Nairobi, to marshal facts to defend our country. The Internet existed, but was not effective enough to be of much help. The State Department seemed aware of these environmental attacks, but was not yet seized enough to provide guidance. Much of what I gathered came from the papers — the International Daily Herald, for example.

Then, after sitting one session through a blistering attack from the ambassador of China, I rose, with proofs, to settle some hash. I showed that no nation present at UNEP had sacrificed more to clean up its carbon pollution than the United States. I also presented damning statistics on the middle class of India — the largest consuming and polluting middle class in the world! Turning to China (whose carbon footprint has recently been shown to be vastly under-reported), I said that I would not accept attacks from a representative of a nation that had not the will or capacity to offer its drivers the option of unleaded gas!

I am no scientist, cannot responsibly speak to the views of those on either side of today’s global warming/climate change issue. Yet, I was there almost at the beginning, and recall how firmly climate issues were grounded in politics — whether politics coming from bitter Cold War losers who wanted revenge on the West, or from others who also wished to “cut America down to size.”

As our leaders go to Paris for the U.S. world summit climate talks, I simply want readers to know that, beyond science, there is important anti-American background here, one which must be taken into account.

At the same time, there are reports that China’s thinking has evolved, that China may actually advance a deal to check its out-of-control emissions. Whatever, China will not agree to any limitations without getting a sizable quid pro quo from the United States.

Richard Hoover, a retired Foreign Service officer, resides in southern Warren County.