Monica and Gordon are to blame

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The Independent Online
HERE'S a thought. Are Monica Lewinsky and Gordon Brown together screwing up the climate? I ask because between them they seem to be doing a lot to slow the momentum that was finally building up to tackle global warming.

Maybe this is a bit unfair on Ms Lewinsky, whose name I use as a shorthand for the sexual scandals surrounding President Clinton. Come to think of it, I suppose Gordon Brown is a collective noun too, this time for the Treasury, but the son of the manse must bear rather more responsibility for his actions.

But ladies first. It briefly seemed towards the end of last year that Mr Clinton might really try to get Americans to take the impending climate change seriously - rather important, as God's Own Country is responsible for over a fifth of the entire world's emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.

Fearing, in his own private words, that "we have already done things that will throw the planet out of kilter", he held a special conference in the White House to draw attention to the issue and summoned 100 local weathermen and women to issue a warning from its lawn. This had some effect. Despite a $13m (pounds 8m) advertising campaign by industry and massive resistance to tackling climate change in the Senate, three quarters of Americans told opinion polls that they wanted emission cuts.

This enabled America's last-minute shift which brought international agreement in Kyoto last December. And there were hopes that the President would enlist his formidable campaigning skills to persuade his nation to accept it.

But then came Monica and the other allegations and revelations - not to mention a little local difficulty in Iraq - and the time that might have been spent on this is being frittered away in the noisome company of lawyers and spin doctors.

Which reminds me; you must go and see Wag the Dog, the film about a President who goes to war to distract media attention from allegations of an affair. Yes, I've read some of the supercilious crits, but I went to see it in New York during the Iraq crisis, and I've rarely laughed as much in a cinema.

It's good value when celluloid fiction coincides with hard fact. Back in 1979, The China Syndrome - a film about a near disaster in a nuclear power station which threatened to wipe out much of Pennsylvania - came out, to the scorn of the industry and right-wingers who said it could never happen. Just a few days later the same industry was struggling to avert catastrophe after an accident in a reactor at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania.

q PANNING along the Government front bench during the Budget speech revealed the usual smug expressions, until the camera got to John Prescott, whose face was creased in a ferocious scowl. I wondered why, but by the end of the speech I understood.

For - and this brings me to Mr Brown - the Chancellor first praised him for securing agreement at Kyoto, and then damned his efforts by doing virtually nothing to cut British emissions. The main measure that caught the headlines was an automatic increase in the tax on petrol, already announced in July, which - as Mr Brown conceded - merely extended a measure brought in by the Tories.

Before the Budget, Dawn Primarolo, the Financial Secretary, was boasting about how she would "ensure that the environment is placed at the centre of our objectives for the tax system". So when Mr Brown made no move towards this, I expected a period of silence.

No chance. There was Red Dawn again, immediately afterwards: "This Government is serious about putting the environment at the heart of policy making, and nowhere is more important than the Budget." She cited an "assessment" in the Budget documents of the impact of its environmental measures.

Ah yes, the assessment. Before the election Labour promised a separate "Green Book" which would set out "the environmental implications of Government policy". In July, Ms Primarolo promised that this comprehensive report would start with this Budget. In the event it ended up as just a single vague table, in the ordinary Budget report.

Incidentally, I gather I am in trouble with officials for accurately predicting last week that the Chancellor would, in general, keep the VAT on energy saving materials at three and a half times the level on fuel. The Treasury insists that EU rules prevent this anomaly being corrected, even though Belgium has already done it. So I give you Ms Primarolo again, who told Parliament on 27 March 1996 that she did not believe this excuse - and was ready to "put it to the test". We're waiting ...

q MEANWHILE, Environment Minister Michael Meacher is worried about the way animals are treated in Europe's zoos. When I asked him why, he went on about "poor standards, cramped space and large predatory animals living alongside prey species". You can tell he knows what he's talking about. It sounds just like the House of Commons.