Cecil would be proud of our Tony

It has felt decidedly odd to be British here at the Earth Summit. For the first time in 25 years of covering international conferences, people have been congratulating me on my nationality.

Why so long? After all, deep in our national psyche lurks the conviction that no one else quite comes up to scratch. "Always remember," Cecil Rhodes told a young officer, "that you were born an Englishman and have thus won first prize in the lottery of life."

Of course, others beg to differ, and for decades Britain's stock has been deservedly falling, under both Labour and Conservative governments, when the world meets to tackle poverty or environmental destruction. Almost invariably, ours has been one of a handful of countries, sometimes the only one, blocking or delaying progress. John Major even refused to turn up or send a Cabinet minister to the summit on how to help the poor, attended by a record number of heads of government, on the grounds that there was "no poverty in Britain".

So the new government's reception here has been a culture shock. Tony Blair not only brought the most powerful delegation - including John Prescott, Robin Cook, Claire Short and Michael Meacher - but made the most constructive speech. So gobsmacked were the delegates, cynical from many such meetings, that they even applauded him when he walked in to lunch.

Patient readers of this column may recall that I have been going on ever since the election - with rather more hope than expectation - about how the new government could make a big entrance on the world stage here and just might make a difference. It certainly made enough of a splash to please even the likes of Messrs Campbell and Mandelson, and despite the summit's almost complete failure, it lit just about the only ray of hope to emanate from the week by budging the United States on global warming.

WHILE Blair has been hailed as a hero here, Bill Clinton and Al Gore have been cast as the villains. Although re-elected last year on an environmentalist platform (Gore has even written a strikingly green book) the administration opposed every initiative here - whether on tackling global warming, protecting forests or finding money to help the Third World develop in greener ways.

No one expects much integrity from Clinton, but Gore's position inspired particular anger. Environmentalists recall Henry Brooks Adams's wry dictum, "A friend in power is a friend lost", and have begun courting his rivals for the next Democratic nominations. "The question is," mused one, "has Gore read his book?"

In fairness, much of the problem is with the Congress, which threatens to oppose any progress on the summit agenda. Robin Cook indicated here that the only hope was for Clinton to try to appeal to the people, over the heads of their representatives, on global warming. And Clinton's speech - though reported as a rejection of action on the issue - appears to have been the first attempt to do just that.

He accepted that global warming is a reality, and described how it would result in the inundation of thousands of square miles of the US, disrupt agriculture and increase deaths from heatstroke and disease, and admitted he had not done enough. And he set out to "convince the American people and the Congress that the climate-change problem is real and imminent".

All this was more than delegates were expecting and the US was offering earlier at the Denver Summit, where it openly clashed with the EU. It is still far from accepting Europe's target for reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming, but it is now promising to come up with targets of its own at a climate summit in Kyoto in December. It may yet end in still more tears, but the chance to break through remains. Top American officials say that Blair's speech was the key factor in persuading a reluctant Clinton to move as far as he did. The speech, added one environmentalist, helped "to change the weather in the White House".

MIND YOU, Britain's move from the rearguard to the van in international environmental issues started with John Gummer, who was here - as part of the UK delegation - and apparently enjoying the irresponsibility of his first week off the front bench.

He opened a Friends of the Earth exhibition of ice sculptures (which quickly melted in the record heatwave here symbolising the effects of global warming) and was to be found at the pressure group's impromptu office at a cafe table holding forth with vigour. "He seems to have joined the team," said Dr Pad Green, one of FoE's top campaigners.

In that capacity, he helped assess the survey by the group on different countries' performance since the Rio Earth Summit five years ago, during most of which time he was at the helm of the Environment Department. No connection, of course, but Britain somehow came out rather well.