Kyoto Summit: Greenhouse optimist takes the stage with lunatic fringe

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Fred L Smith Jr, whose card describes him as president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), has a very unusual enthusiasm - he is a passionate, outspoken lover of global warming. At the United Nations environment conference, where he is proselytising, there has been much fearful talk of melting ice caps, disappearing islands, malaria and crop failures if, as most scientists anticipate, the planet continues to heat up. But Mr Smith can't wait.

"There are four principle benefits," he explains. "The growth rate of plants would increase faster than anyone thinks possible. Agricultural growing regions would expand northward. There'd be a reduction in heating needs, which is more than the cost of cooling. And warm is healthy! People like warm places - where do we go to live when we retire? Do we go to Minnesota? No! We go to Florida."

In the world of environmental politics, there is more than one lunatic fringe. As the delegations to Kyoto have deliberated over the last nine days, environmental activists of the traditional school have mounted protests, demos and photo-opportunities.

But equally active, if less conspicuous, have been their antagonists, a tribe of lobbyists, lawyers and academics who have as much in common with the green movement as Hitler's National Socialists had with Karl Marx. Environmentalists call them the fossil fuel lobby or the "carbon club". Among themselves they prefer the term "free market NGOs". Almost no independent opinion takes them seriously - mainstream science regards Mr Smith's views on global warming as naively optimistic at best, recklessly irresponsible at worst. But their academic credibility is less important than the fact that they are sponsored by the big oil, car and power companies.

In the run up to the Kyoto conference, and principally in the United States, the world's largest polluter, a concerted campaign has been mounted to convince Americans that a decrease in emissions of greenhouse gases, such as the 15 per cent cut proposed by the European Union, would be a disaster.

Mr Smith's CEI has no more than a bit part; the biggest player is the Global Climate Coalition, sponsored by corporate backers including the American Petroleum Institute, Exxon and Ford, who have contributed to a $13m (pounds 8m) advertising campaign.

The campaign's message is that cuts in carbon dioxide emissions will hurt America's economy and help her competitors, especially the developing countries like China and India, which are resisting making their own cuts. Its tone is captured by an ad which ran in American newspapers this week. "America has signed many treaties ... but never a treaty of surrender," ran the caption above a photograph of the Japanese surrender at the end of the Second World War.

Business and industry is deeply divided over the claims of men like Mr Smith. In Kyoto a group of international insurers appealed for stern measures to reduce global warming because the extreme weather and natural disasters brought about by global warming, they point out, is making the world impossible to insure. BP has withdrawn from the Coalition.

The success of the carbon campaign is difficult to judge. But the GCC's support was crucial to the near unanimous passing of a bill in the US Senate which has tied the hands of the Clinton resolution and complicated immeasurably the negotiations at Kyoto. If global warming turns out to bring about more crop failures than happy retirements, then Mr Smith and his tribe will bear much of the responsibility.