Leading article: It ain't half hot, Prime Minister

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The Independent Culture
THE NEWS on global warming gets worse and worse. Yesterday, we learnt that this has been the hottest year of the past millennium; today, that the Amazon rainforest, whose importance to the world cannot be overstated, will start to turn to desert within 50 years. Those are facts to set against the diplomatic paper-shuffling that emerges from much-heralded meetings, such as the Rio summit (which achieved little in practice), or last December's Kyoto summit on climate change, at which John Prescott trumpeted the UK's green credentials.

At Kyoto much was agreed, on paper. Did it slow down atmospheric warming? Not a jot. So should we expect much from the high-level meeting in Buenos Aires to establish how to meet targets set at Kyoto? Are governments at last taking this issue seriously, and does that mean that we are, too?

Experience is rapidly showing that they are not. The rainforest is being slashed, levelled and burnt, not only in Brazil, but in countries such as Indonesia, where deliberate forest fires caused havoc last year.

While it's easy to condemn those who set the fires, which turn into scrub forests that took thousands of years to develop, their motives are straightforward. They want to eat, today and tomorrow - they want to provide for their children. From our distant perspective, we can see a long-term harm; to them, it's immaterial. Like smokers, they are not interested in long- term effects. They are making what economists call "the tyranny of little choices" - a river of decisions of Amazonian proportion, against which environmentalists vainly wade upstream.

Meetings such as Rio, Kyoto and even Buenos Aires may talk tough - but it's at too rarefied a level. Progress will come only when those meetings honestly tackle the economic reasons why people tear up rainforest, and put a value on them, and make it worthwhile to preserve them. Otherwise we have the bizarre spectacle of a global financial system that can find billions to bale out an American company that speculated in "hedge" funds, yet can't manipulate simple economics in order to save some trees.

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