What planet are you on, Mr Bush? (and do you care, Mr Blair?)

Tens of thousands of people marched in 33 countries yesterday to express concern for the environment. But will their leaders respond? Geoffrey Lean and David Randall report
Click to follow
The Independent Online

More than 100,000 people took to the streets in more than 30 countries yesterday, in the first world-wide demonstration to press for action to combat global warming.

The marches - timed to put pressure on the most important international climate-change negotiations since the agreement of the Kyoto Protocol eight years ago - took place against a background of a blizzard of new research showing that the heating of the planet is seriously affecting the world sooner than the scientists predicted (see panel below).

The protests were directed primarily at President George Bush, who has been assiduously trying to sabotage the protocol and has ruled out even talking about setting targets for reducing the pollution that causes global warming, once the current targetsexpire.

Harlan Watson - the head of the US delegation to the negotiations, being held in Montreal - announced at the opening of the meeting: "The United States is opposed to any such discussions."

Yesterday's march in London was also directed at Tony Blair. Ten thousand demonstrators - who created a party atmosphere while carrying banners linking the President and the Prime Minister as "climate criminals" - took a special detour to hand in a letter at No 10 Downing Street.

They are concerned that Mr Blair - who put climate change at the head of the international agenda by making it one of his priorities for this summer's Gleneagles Summit - may have recently trimmed his position to please Mr Bush. The letter demanded that he reaffirm the Government's commitment to a new international treaty with legally binding targets on reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants that cause the climate change.

The Prime Minister has caused widespread confusion by appearing to back such a treaty, then to cast doubt on it.

The protesters also demanded that Britain should do much more to cut its own pollution; emissions of carbon dioxide have actually risen since Labour took power in 1997, despite repeated election pledges to cut them by 20 per cent by 2010.

Nick Rau, Friends of the Earth's energy campaigner, said: "If the UK is serious about leadership on climate change then our Government needs to take action at home. It is not too late."

The first demonstration of the day took place in Australia when thousands of protesters marched in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Australia is, with the US, the only Western industrialised nation not to have ratified Kyoto.

The Australian government reacted by reaffirming its refusal to join the protocol, insisting, according to its Environment minister, Ian Campbell: "We need to do something that suits the developed world, something that suits the rapidly developing world - partnerships, technologies, economic mechanisms that drive us towards that."

One of the biggest demonstrations took place in Montreal where Inuit from the Arctic were keen to draw attention to the melting of ice in their territory, which is threatening their fishing and livelihoods. They were among a crowd of some 7,000 people, around half the number organisers had anticipated.

Five environmental groups, including Greenpeace and the Climate Crisis Coalition, delivered a petition signed by 600,000 Americans to the US Consulate in Montreal urging the Bush administration to help slow global warming.

In Washington, drivers of hybrid cars - which emit far less carbon dioxide - planned to drive around the White House. And in New Orleans - devastated by Hurricane Katrina - residents intended to hold a "Save New Orleans, Stop Global Warming" party in the French Quarter. Events were held in 40 other US cities. Protests were also held in Bulgaria, Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Philippines, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, and Turkey.

The US protests symbolised a major change in opinion in the United States since Hurricane Katrina, which doubled the number of people telling opinion polls that they believed global warming was an immediate threat. Another poll, carried out by the conservative Fox News, shows that more than three-quarters of Americans believe that global warming is happening and is at least partially caused by human activity, and that 60 per cent see it as a "crisis" or a "major problem".

But this has yet to make an impact on the Bush administration. Camilla Toulmin, the director of the authoritative International Institute of Environment and Development, said: "In the case of the current US administration we may have to give up ever hoping for a flicker of intelligence on climate change. The pattern of interests based on oil and gas seems too closely knit into an armour-plated defence of US plc."

The Montreal conference, the first meeting of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol since it came into force in February, has achieved one minor success. Delegates adopted most of the "rule book" needed to make the treaty operational, though tactics by Saudi Arabia have held up agreement on how countries that break the rules will be punished.

The UK Government - which is playing a key role in the talks as head of the EU delegation - was quick to hail this agreement, far from a foregone conclusion, as a triumph. But environmentalists pointed out that the situation is dire indeed if there could be doubt over whether even previously agreed rules would be formally adopted.

The conference will also address bureaucratic UN procedures which have held up schemes to provide funds to developing countries to adopt cleaner technologies and development policies.

But the real sticking point is what happens in the future. Scientists are broadly agreed that rich countries have to reduce their emissions by a massive 80 per cent by 2050 if there is to be any hope of stopping climate change escalating out of control.

The Kyoto protocol targets, even if they are met, will reduce them by only 5.2 per cent, and everyone agrees that it barely makes a dent on the problem. Stavros Dimas, the European environment commissioner, briefly cheered the conference by predicting that the EU would meet its targets two years before the deadline. But even he admitted that little was likely to be achieved in Montreal. "Our objective is to get an agreement to start negotiations," he said.

And Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for the Environment, said that anyone who believed that the meeting was going to agree to new pollution reduction targets was "living in cloud-cuckoo land". She added: "Let's see how we can move forward instead of setting some arbitrary goal that cannot possibly be achieved."

Britain says that moving forward depends on getting the US and leading developing countries such as China, India and Brazil to agree to join the battle against the climate change.

Both camps have said that they will not join any new treaty unless the other does.

But the developing countries have already taken far-reaching domestic action to cut pollution and develop renewable energy and were expressing their willingness in Montreal's corridors last week to "play their part". The big obstacle - as yesterday's demonstrators pointed out - is the White House.


The catalogue of disasters that are happening right now

Across the planet, rising temperatures are taking their toll


New research has found that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - the main cause of global warming - are higher than at any time in the past 625,000 years. HOTTEST EVER

This year is expected to be the warmest ever recorded; 1998 was the hottest so far, but the past three years currently occupy the next three places.


The giant Kalahari desert, already four times the size of Britain, threatens to become larger still, covering farmland in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa.


The level of the world's seas and oceans is rising twice as fast as in the past, as their waters expand in rising temperatures and glaciers melt.


The people of the Carteret Islands, a scattering of atolls off Papua New Guinea in the South Pacific, have started to leave as their homes succumb to rising seas.


Hurricane Epsilon - the 14th of the year - is forming in the Atlantic, even though the worst recorded hurricane season by far formally ended on Wednesday.


Greenland glaciers have suddenly started racing towards the sea and melting. Much the same is beginning to happen to glaciers in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.


Areas such as the western USA, which depend on mountain snows for their water supplies, are running short as less snow falls - and what does fall melts earlier.


Sealife and birdlife have declined catastrophically this year along America's north-west Pacific coast, after a similar meltdown in the North Sea.


Corals on the Great Barrier Reef are bleaching out and dying as sea temperatures rise and scientists fear that the whole reef may perish by 2050.