November 25th 2000 is a day that will go down in history. Not as a day to be celebrated with flags and songs, but as a day of mourning. For today is the day when the world failed to face up to the challenge of climate change. It's also the day that government negotiators, blinded by political inertia and commercial interests, watched years of meticulous work collapse around them.
The final plenary session of the Sixth Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change gave few clues as to the reasons for this failure. Desperate to salvage some credibility from the ashes of this long and complex process, delegates queued up to deliver heart-felt statements of regret and willingness to resume in the near future. But the reality of the situation is that Kyoto is dead, that The Hague talks killed it, and that if the challenge of impending climate catastrophe is ever to be seriously dealt with policy-makers will need to start all over again.
The real criminals - yes, criminals - here are the United States. In full knowledge of the urgency of the situation, and presented only two weeks ago with concrete evidence that global warming in this century alone could exceed a deadly six degrees celsius, they riddled the Kyoto treaty with holes and then had the gall to complain when the Europeans wouldn't sign. Now Bill Clinton, who many thought would buckle at the last moment in order not to be remembered as an environmental villain, has lost the game. "How will he face Chelsea?" asked one baffled journalist. Although optimists say that the COP6 splits could be tackled further at a resumed session in May 2001, by then an oilman will be in the White House - and all bets on a US compromise will be off.
Many environmental groups, although publicly decrying the failure here at The Hague, are privately relieved that they won't have to carry out the dirty work of supporting an agreement that stinks. As it stood late last night, the text would have allowed logging companies around the globe to devastate tropical forests and establish pine plantations - then claiming financial credits for 'soaking up' carbon. It would have allowed the United States and other rich countries to meet their Kyoto targets of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while behind the scenes giving them free license to do exactly the opposite. And it could even have provided cash for nuclear power and coal plants across Eastern Europe and the developing world.
In the longer term The Hague could turn out to have been a blessing in disguise. Nothing has been agreed, but at least now no-one can pretend otherwise. That's surely better than fake 'cuts' behind a green smokescreen.
Instead, it's time to move on. Now that governments have failed, it's time for the world's people to stand up and be counted. In truth COP6, like all previous COPs, was an obscure process understood only by a few thousand international policy-makers and lobbyists - all operating in a political vacuum without the participation or even the interest of the people they claimed to represent. Now that our leaders have failed, it's time for us citizens to act. Rather than being decided behind closed doors at the UN, strategies for dealing with climate change should be decided on the streets.
As the world continues to warm at an escalating rate, and more powerful storms batter coastlines and flatten whole towns, people in rich countries will have no choice but to wake up to the need to radically change their lifestyles and economies. At the moment, jobs, health and education always come top in any list of immediate political priorities. But as the death toll mounts, more and more people cannot fail to realise that climate change is an issue of basic human survival.
We can only hope - and hope against most of the current scientific evidence - that by then it won't already be too late.
- 100 Climate Justice Initiative