Symbolic politics

Al Gore in Bali...Photo:Jewel Samad/Getty images

Al Gore in Bali...Photo:Jewel Samad/Getty images

They kept the star power to the end. Al Gore fired-up the weary Bali climate change conference delegates with a speech which named the inconvenient truth everyone was battling against: the Bush delegates were stonewalling again. But his message of hope was more instructive: America is changing. As Time noted:

Toward the end of his speech Gore, with his customary taste for the eccentric analogy, invoked the hockey player Bobby Hull, who Gore said was skilled because he sent the puck, not where his teammates were, but where they would be. “You have to look to where we’re going to be”

If Gore wasn’t enough. Leonardo Di Caprio also flew in for the final hours of talks or maybe for the after party. Who knows? He might not have much effect on the talks but according to the The Guardian’s David Adam his arrival cheered many weary women journalists.

Australian PM Kevin Rudd got a lot of great press to start with after announcing his signing of Kyoto but in the last few days his refusal to join Europe on the 25-40% emissions clause has dulled his star. Rudd said last week that these talks were “horse-trading” and as a former diplomat he knows the trade better than many others.

To explore a slightly different metaphor, one with some poignancy after more news about further arctic ice caps melts: everyone is trying to stay afloat. Some are dog paddling quietly while others are splashing around trying to get attention. Europe is making a big noise hoping to push the agenda forward while the US is playing the old game of talking to extend the talking rather than to conclude the deal. Australia is playing to two different audiences: Rudd can’t afford to give the home-front opposition forces an excuse early in his term to talk about economic irresponsibility of his climate stance so he is being cagey on exact targets – he says he is waiting for his commissioned economic impact statement. He needs this report as ammunition. On the international level he seems to be siding with the US Japan and Canada perhaps, one would hope, in order to later play a mediator role which will push this group forward. Adam is more forthright about this political game than most of the mainstream reports have been:

Few will say it officially, but most here seem to have settled for a Bali roadmap that commits all countries to a formal negotiation on a new treaty, but doesn’t include the numbers. Even Greenpeace said as much this morning, joining the US, the UK (and so Europe) and the UN officials running the whole circus. So why are we still here? And why the continuing threats from both sides? Seasoned observers say this end game is all about how to sell the agreement when the countries go their separate ways tomorrow and have to explain to their citizens what they have signed up to. Each needs a success to trumpet, some good old fashioned political spin. Ours will be that the US has been dragged to the negotiating table. Mr Bush will point out that he is taking the issue seriously, without actually committing to anything.

There is a lot of posturing going on here but symbolic politics is increasingly important. In Bali Gore again went with his “the earth has a fever” metaphor and it is the power of metaphors like this one mixed with the startling brutality of constantly emerging new scientific facts that has really pushed the debate forward. The theatre of dispute has also emerged as important in the last days of the talks with the Europeans and the Indonesians unafraid to make their anger clear.

The term “roadmap” which is constantly being used reminds of course about another series of endlessly disastrous negotiations: the fraught process toward peace in the middle east. Here key moments of symbolic politics seem to have had little effect on real outcomes. But at least the pressure of symbolic politics have kept all parties at the negotiating table. As Yvo de Boer, the UN’s point man in Bali told the BBC it is unlikely that the politicians will walk away from Bali with no agreement:

“It’s possible but it won’t happen,” he said.

“It won’t happen because such public pressure has been built to deliver a result here, I do not believe ministers will be able to leave this conference without a political answer to the scientific message they have received.

”Everybody is working hard towards a result, nobody wants to see it fail and nobody wants to be the country that makes it fail.“

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