Green thorn for White House will be sorely missed

Death of Phil Clapp is severe blow to environment campaigners in US

Plastic ducks – and the planet – lost one of their greatest champions last week with the death of the most effective environmental campaigner in the US.

Phil Clapp – who for 14 years led the National Environment Trust pressure group – had been the principal green thorn in the flesh of the Bush and Clinton/ Gore administrations. And he had just become an even more formidable force, after overseeing the merger of his organisation with the fabulously wealthy Pew Charitable Trusts.

But what of the ducks? Their moment came three years ago at the lowest point for the international negotiations on what is to replace the Kyoto Protocol. A vital meeting in Montreal was deadlocked with the US refusing to hold talks on a future treaty. When a last-minute compromise was suggested, the US rejected it, saying "if it looked like a duck, it was still a duck".

Clapp went out and bought every yellow plastic duck the Canadian city had to offer and distributed them at the conference. They cropped up everywhere. Ministers walked around with them poking out of their pockets. Delegates opened briefcases to release a cascade of them. They were floating in washbasins, and appeared on dinner plates. Turned into a laughing stock, the US had to give way.

The coup was typical of Clapp, a chain-smoking, coffee-addicted Buddhist Anglophile with a sense of humour. He would as readily regale you with the sexual misdemeanours of British monarchs as elucidate the political intricacies of the US administrative process. He had a way of cutting to the core of a problem and finding an acceptable, and invariably elegant, solution.

Former Senator Timothy Wirth, for whom Clapp once worked, called him "the single most effective person [in the US] in terms of pushing for change". He was one of the few US environmentalists prepared to tackle Al Gore for failing to implement his green principles while in office.

As the Bush era ends, Clapp has never been more needed – and is irreplaceable.