This article originally appeared in the March/April 2004 issue of Orion, 187 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, 888/909-6568, ($35/year for 6 issues). Placed on the ECOLOGIA website by permission of Orion. Not to be disseminated. For use by ECOLOGIA, for website reprint only.

"When Boring is Beautiful"

How do you measure progress on climate change?
One dull meeting at a time

By Bill McKibben

This is a story about the most technical, detailed, emotionally unrewarding environmentalism I’ve ever heard about. Boring, so boring. And absolutely basic to saving the planet.

Begin with nuts and bolts. The reason you can screw a nut from Indonesia on a bolt from Bulgaria is because of the International Standards Organization. The ISO was formed in the wake of World War II, and it’s contributed more to the spread of globalization than the WTO or GATT or NAFTA—because if a motor from one corner of the world blows out the wiring from another corner, you can pretty much forget about international commerce. Interchangeability of parts, of systems, makes a global economy possible. “Whenever there’s an opportunity to standardize something the ISO jumps in, because they make money by marketing new standards, by training people how to comply with them,” says Randy Kritkausky, who runs a small environmental NGO called Ecologia.

Whether that globalization is for better or for worse is something Kritkausky would be happy to talk about at some length—he’s a historian, an activist, a Vermont guy with a beard. But he won’t have the time this spring. A few years ago, almost by accident, his work on cleaning up Eastern European heavy industry led him to understand the power of the ISO. He also realized that, though it was largely ignored by environmentalists, the ISO needed green credibility and so was more than happy to let him sit at the table. He's been sitting there ever since, one dull conference after another, and this spring it may finally pay off. He and his colleagues are in the final stages of trying to wrestle a new standard out of the ISO—one that would tell companies around the planet how to monitor, measure, and verify their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

That may not sound like much—it’s not like the Kyoto treaty, which would have told countries to reduce those gases. But if there’s ever going to be a treaty of any kind, or any array of regional agreements, or any market in carbon emissions, or any actual way to slow our descent into something that if it isn’t hell is roughly the same temperature, then there has to be a way to measure this stuff. Without it, every initiative is just talk. But once there’s a standard accounting system, all manner of creative solutions are possible: American companies, say, could pay to clean up the unbelievably inefficient factories of Eastern Europe, dramatically reducing carbon emissions for much less money than they’d have to pay to get comparable decreases in their own relatively efficient stateside plants. And in the process they’d spread a little wealth.

Hence this new thrust by ISO. After the Rio summit the organization sensed a market opportunity, and decided to branch out from screw threads into environmental sustainability. Now, after a number of much smaller sustainability standards, on issues like lifecycle analysis and labeling, they’re tackling the central question of how to measure carbon. Simple, right? You just figure out how much is spewing out the smokestack. Well, not so simple.

“We’re in the middle of writing this section right now,” says Kritkausky. “Boundaries are a big question. Sure, they can calculate how much they reduce that stuff that comes out the top of the chimney. But then we say, ‘Er, what about that fleet of trucks that delivers your products every day?’ It’s pretty simple why industry wants to limit its responsibilities. We’re trying to extend the boundaries so that you capture as much as possible.”

And then there’s the question of how to verify industry claims. “Public reporting of everything is the single most important part of the whole process,” says Kritkausky. Think Enron, think Arthur Anderson. So Ecologia has been pushing hard for a standard that insists that all information be on the public record. “When we’re sitting at the table we put in ‘shall,’ ‘shall,’ ‘shall.’ And the other side wants it to say ‘may,’ ‘may,’ ‘may.’”

Not all industry is on that other side, by the way. Increasingly, says Kritkausky, lots of companies are coming out for stronger standards: insurance companies, for instance. And those corportions that have begun to do the right thing and want to be able to profit from it—the Duponts, the BPs, the others that have decided it’s in their business interest to take climate change seriously.

Then there is the “may” side, of course, and of course it’s represented by the Bush administration—by the same impulse against any form of international cooperation that has already blocked Kyoto, the International Criminal Court, a new bioweapons treaty, and dozens of other initiatives. One of this year’s battles may be over the ISO standards, which, after the long technical process of drafting, have now gone out to national delegations for review. Those delegations may not be able to block outright a new standard, but they can water it down, and that may be the approach favored by men like former auto lobbyist John Connaughton, who now serves as chair of the president’s Council on Environmental Quality.

“The U.S. always has the largest and most prepared delegation,” says Kritkausky, and in this case that preparation may be aimed at making the new rules as toothless as possible to protect the most troglodyte American industries. Our delegation is stacked with people who will push for limited public access, or the narrowest possible boundaries. “An awful lot of the e-mail addresses on the list end in,” Kritkausky adds.

“Everything we’ve fought for could be undone,” he warns. “Now is the time for every environmental group that’s been sitting on the sidelines to look at this thing and be heard.” Which is probably too much to ask—a certain segment of the environmental movement can’t cope with anything too abstract to photograph for next year’s calendar. “There’s no question this is tedious work,” says Kritkausky. “The meetings last for hours on end, and you can barely stay awake. And then all of a sudden the discussion is about ‘shall’ and ‘may’ and you realize everything has been put on the table. You have to keep your vigilance at a very high level, even when nothing is happening. You know they’re going to attack, you just don’t know when. You have to go to every meeting, look at every e-mail. The one meeting you didn’t go to is the one where they changed the words.”

And yet, despite this kind of opposition, in fits and starts, it’s happening — not just these new ISO regs, but on other fronts as well. The consensus of the rest of the world is heading in the right direction — too timidly, too slowly, but still in the right direction. In the face of American obstruction, the world is learning the nuts and bolts of preserving the planet. It may not be glamorous, it may not even be interesting, but in some deep way it’s incredibly moving.

Bill McKibben’s books include The End of Nature, Hope: Human and Wild, and Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age. He is a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2004 issue of Orion, 187 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, 888/909-6568, ($35/year for 6 issues). Placed on the ECOLOGIA website by permission of Orion. Not to be disseminated. For use by ECOLOGIA for website reprint only.