Clinton's scorn for the warming world

John Gummer, at the Algonquin in New York, condemns the President's attitude at the UN Summit
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The New York Police Department buses stand outside the United Nations building with their engines idling all day - polluting the city to keep the air-conditioning going for the waiting driver inside. They symbolise America's failure to take the climate change and pollution issues seriously. Indeed delegates here at the Rio+5 environment summit have become increasingly angry with the way the United States has been thumbing its nose at the rest of the world.

Tempers began to rise at the Denver meeting of the rich nations, the G8. It was a badly prepared and appallingly arranged event. The famous incident where the Prime Minister was left without a chair was only one of its embarrassing moments. The whole thing was staged as a Clinton promotion exercise and the other leaders found themselves co-opted into his publicity machine. Chancellor Kohl was visibly angry at the way the whole meeting was hijacked for American domestic consumption. The overloaded agenda denied the other heads of government any chance of effective discussion and they had to be content with sending a clear signal to the US President of Europe's determination to force him to take a more constructive position on global warming.

Europe now has a credible and effective position on climate change. There was a time when the US could laugh off our protestations by pointing out that only the UK and Germany looked as if they were going to meet their Rio targets. That was why it was crucial that any EU proposals should clearly stand up and not be mere rhetoric. The UK played a key role in making the European position credible, insisting that every country produce real figures to which it was committed.

Until April this year, most of the southern European nations had taken refuge in demanding help from cohesion funds before they would promise anything. Led by the new Spanish minister, they finally gave way and produced clear targets which can be achieved. In aggregate that will lead to a 10 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases over the whole of the EU by 2010 based upon present commitments. The aspirational target of 15 per cent could become a firm one if new measures are added to give it real credibility. This insistence upon real targets has given the EU leaders the strength to take on the US so directly.

That meant that by the time they got to the UN on Monday, the EU delegations were ready for a fight but even they were unprepared for the sheer rudeness of the US administration. Despite the fact that America was billed as the host country for Rio+5, the President was not there to welcome the three dozen heads of state and government who had come to mark the importance of the Earth Summit. He was off in Los Angeles to address a convention of American mayors, a visit arranged long after the dates of the UN meeting had been agreed. As a result the media headlines all Monday night were about mayors in California and not climate change in New York. The President's priorities spoke louder than words.

So it was Al Gore, the great hope of the Green movement, who received the distinguished delegations. In a famous book, written before he came into office, he had highlighted the importance of combating pollution and inveighed against the pernicious influence of professional lobby groups. In his speech of welcome, the Vice-President spoke about climate change but gave no hint of American action, saying nothing that the coal interests need fear.

So the prime ministers of Spain and the Netherlands, of the United Kingdom and of Belgium, the President of France and the Chancellor of Germany spoke to the General Assembly of the United Nations on Tuesday. They had to listen to the disturbing message brought by the presidents of Zimbabwe and Tanzania on behalf of the poor nations. They listened to each other and spoke clearly about the responsibilities of the United States whose President had chosen to be elsewhere.

That meant he did not have to share the limelight with the other world leaders. His slot on Thursday ensured that his speech was reported in the US media with as little as possible of Monday's embarrassing criticisms. His appearance therefore gave little opportunity to advance the debate in the US. The American people will continue to be blissfully unaware of the growing resentment at the high-handed attitude of their government towards the rest of the world.

Clinton gave no meaningful commitment on climate change, despite the fact that the US is the world's biggest polluter. It takes the work of 120 men to produce the energy that a single American consumes. That is twice what a European needs, 15 times more than a Chinese, 120 times that of a Bangladeshi!

The US administration does not deny the problem of global warming. Since last year it has even denounced those who pretend it isn't real. What it will not do is to act. It has abrogated leadership to the Senate, where the industry lobbyists have free reign. It would prefer to cock a snook at the rest of the world than risk a confrontation with Jesse Helms.

So this has been a bad week for the US and a bad week therefore for the rest of us. A President who misuses his allies in Denver and snubs them in New York can hardly complain when they gang up on him wherever they have the chance. Somehow, before December's crunch meeting in Kyoto, America will have to repair the damage, mend its manners, and recognise that no nation is so big that it can afford to be isolationist about the world's climate.

The writer was formerly Secretary of State for the Environment.