Do US a favour

In the wake of the fudged Gleneagles communiqué and the Bush side-deal with Australia, CIWEM's Nick Reeves ponders the chances of America facing up to its responsibilities in the battle against global warming

Water is rising – up the agenda, that is. In a recent poll of the US science and engineering community, as to what were the 20 greatest technological achievements of the last century, water supply and distribution came fourth. According to the US National Academy of Engineering, which conducted the poll, water has risen rapidly in the hierarchy of technological greats because of the impact of global warming and the threat to water supplies in many parts of the world.

While it’s great that climate change and the security of water supplies are high on the scientists’ agenda, it ever more urgently begs the question: what about the politicians?

After all the hype and all the expectations that something good might emerge on global warming, the G8 communiqué from July’s Gleneagles summit was little short of embarrassing. If I were Tony Blair I’d rather lick a wrestler’s armpit than put my name to such a bland and uninspiring document. Although the G8 nations agreed ‘to act with urgency and resolve’ on climate change, they didn’t say how. They didn’t even mention the need for targets. This was, no doubt, a ploy, designed to keep the US at the table – for, as Tony Blair said after the summit, “If we do not have the US, India and China as part of the dialogue, there is no possibility of succeeding in resolving this issue”.

Teeth of clay

So, as we all suspected, the G8 has no real power and the Bush administration calls the shots. As if to prove the point, just after Gleneagles the US announced it had done a separate deal with Australia on development of green energy technologies that would exploit emerging markets in China and south-east Asia. Negotiated secretly over the past 12 months, this alternative to Kyoto took everyone by surprise and was regarded as ‘a poke in the eye for Tony Blair’.

Of course, the UN is the proper place for action on climate change. The G8 cannot take any decisions; it has no constitution and no executive. It is at best a talking shop for the world’s richest nations. Nevertheless, some indication or suggestion that the G8 were up for reducing greenhouse gases would send a positive signal to the world.

The language of the communiqué, in the view of one leading science journal, was ‘stone age’. The recent disturbing findings of the UK Government’s Exeter climate change conference were all but ignored, as was the unprecedented statement of the world’s leading science academies – including our own Royal Society – on the need for urgent action.

Sliding back from Rio

13 years ago, at the Rio Summit, George Bush Senior signed up to the view that rising greenhouse gases lead to global warming. Fast-forward to Gleneagles, where George Junior would concede only that it is “associated with” global warming. At Rio, it was agreed that to prevent dangerous climate change, concentrations of greenhouse gases would have to be stabilised and that this would require cuts in emissions. So, why couldn’t the G8 agree to that now?

The communiqué’s action plan is ten pages long, and although I urge you to read it, I warn that you will be – should be – disappointed. It commits nobody to anything that smacks of action or ‘can-do’. It has statements that are blindingly obvious and passé, with weasel words like ‘promoting’, ‘encouraging’, ‘exploring’ – but nothing about doing.

To be fair, Tony Blair, who chaired the Summit, did argue that some way has to be found to get the US back to the table to agree the realities of climate change. A conversation is needed now between the US and the large developing nations like China and India. And now that developing nations have woken up to the fact that climate change poses a real and urgent threat to them too, a real opportunity has opened up.

But the very need for such a meeting so long after Rio shows how badly the political process has failed. It’s not the science of climate change that needs so many studies and reports, but how to get our political leaders to engage with the science that they so readily ignore. This, as Sherlock Holmes might have said, is a two-pipe problem.

In the UK this November there’ll be another opportunity for the politicos to ignore the science of climate change. The US has agreed to meet its G8 member colleagues plus India, China, Brazil and South Africa to discuss our changing climate and to set the scene for more formal UN talks in Montreal in December. These talks about talks will consider new 2012 targets for carbon emissions to replace those of the Kyoto protocol. In the light of what didn’t happen at Gleneagles and the US-Australian deal, dare we risk any sense of hope? The Montreal meeting will have to decide whether to renew the Kyoto protocol after 2012, with tougher targets, or – as the US would prefer – to start again with a much less specific and probably softer ‘UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’.

Talking to some US environmentalists, it becomes clear that there is a significant body of American scientists and industrialists who hoped the G8 would isolate President Bush on climate change. In particular Dr Charles Vest, of the Massachusetts Institute of Science and Technology – addressing a gathering of UK scientists at the Science Council’s AGM in July – said that neither he nor many of his colleagues agreed with current US policy on climate change, but predicted that the US will assume a gradual involvement in leadership the issue. We must hope that he is right, and that the US will eventually cease to be cool on global warming.

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