Geoffrey Lean: The world did not end. But the planet remains in peril

Click to follow
The Independent Online

They had thought it would be a bright new dawn. In a few hours the Queen was to launch a new partnership between Britain and Germany to spearhead the international battle against global warming. And the ministers, senior officials, company chief executives and top scientists attending the launch had gone to bed believing that John Kerry - deeply concerned about the catastrophic climate change - was about to become President of the United States.

They had thought it would be a bright new dawn. In a few hours the Queen was to launch a new partnership between Britain and Germany to spearhead the international battle against global warming. And the ministers, senior officials, company chief executives and top scientists attending the launch had gone to bed believing that John Kerry - deeply concerned about the catastrophic climate change - was about to become President of the United States.

Instead they staggered gloomily downstairs at Berlin's Marriott Hotel to face grey skies - and the re-election of the man who has done more than anyone else in the world to obstruct their efforts to its most powerful job. Some sat at their breakfast tables, head in hands, bemoaning "a black day".

Twenty-four hours later Britons awoke to hear Myron Ebell, billed as an adviser to George W Bush, gloat on the Today programme that there would be "no change" in the President's implacable stance and claim that Sir David King - the Government's much-respected chief scientist, and one of the convenors of the Berlin meeting - "knows nothing about climate science".

Listeners were outraged. Charles Kennedy condemned his remarks as "profoundly alarming". Even the normally complaisant Jack Straw conceded that this was a "big disagreement" with the Bush administration. But the outrage was misplaced; the despair, at worst, premature. For a start, Mr Ebell does not advise the President, and never has. He merely works for the Competitive Enterprise Institute - an anti-environmentalist think tank, partly funded by ExxonMobil, the most vocal corporate opponent of tackling global warming.

More important, there is much still to play for over US climate policy. For as Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett told the same programme, pressure for change is coming "from the bottom up".

Opinion polls consistently register 70 to 80 per cent of Americans as wanting their country to take the lead in fighting global warming. Senior Republican governors - Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, George Pataki of New York and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California - have already instituted radical programmes in their states to cut the pollution that causes the climate change.

The Senate - which seven years ago voted unanimously against the Kyoto protocol - last year almost evenly split over a bill requiring big unilateral cuts in US emissions. And - at almost the moment that he was being denounced by Mr Ebell - Sir David was telling me in Berlin how Spencer Abraham, Bush's energy secretary, and John Marburger, his chief science adviser, had both publicly accepted the science of global warming.

Even the most polluting industries are divided, with oil companies such as BP-Amoco and almost half the electricity companies lobbying for action. And a meeting of 30 evangelical church leaders - all Bush supporters - last summer "covenanted" to study the issue sympathetically and produce a report on it.

Shell-shocked American experts said yesterday that - though it would take time to recover from Wednesday's "rout" - none of this had gone away. And as participants pointed out in Berlin, Russia's decision to ratify the Kyoto protocol - now due to come into force early next year - has dramatically changed the rules of the game.

As the head of one of the world's biggest oil companies put it, the rest of the world now has a "project", with or without the US. Another leading industrialist called developing the new clean technologies "the biggest investment opportunity in the world". Said a third: "If the US does not want these new markets, we will be delighted to take them."

They expect US companies soon to be pressing Bush to get them in on the act, not by ratifying Kyoto, but by entering international negotiations on its successor. The biggest obstacle is Bush himself, said to be the most recalcitrant member of his administration on the issue.

Cue for Tony Blair - by universal consent the man best placed to convince Bush - who has announced that global warming will be one of his top priorities as president both of the EU and of the G8 next year.

There is much he can do. He can ensure that President Bush fulfils commitments to increase research into renewable sources of energy, including developing fuels from plants. He could invite US legislators to see the new British-German partnership in action. And above all he could use his popularity in the US to catalyse the growing support for action by speaking out on the issue when he goes to congratulate the re-elected President.

Comments