Johann Hari: The sudden death of Blair's green beliefs

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The Independent Online

In the lull between Katrina and Rita, Tony Blair sat next to the human oil-barrel Condoleezza Rice in New York and casually announced he has "changed his thinking in the past two or three years" on this issue, which just happens to be "the biggest threat we face", according to his yellowing speeches from last year.

We all know what the old Blair believed: that governments must negotiate a binding treaty to cap the greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming. That meant Kyoto for now, and - when it runs out in 2012 - a much tougher successor. Even people who despaired of Blair's domestic and foreign policies often clung to his environmentalism as the last shiny scrap of his decency, his one note of dissent from the Bush line.

But the New Blair sounds remarkably like Dubya. "The truth is, no country is going to cut its growth or consumption substantially in light of a long-term environmental problem," he said. It's time to be "brutally honest": there will probably never be a successor treaty to Kyoto, because the Americans, Chinese and Indians will never sign up. Besides, he said, you don't need a cap after all - you just need to develop some new technologies. In that New York conference room, eight years of Labour's environmental policies cracked into pieces like a melting iceberg.

Condoleezza beamed. The US right nearly combusted with glee. An ExxonMobil-funded propaganda site joyfully announced: "Blair has just effectively pulled the plug on Kyoto." The Bush-loving shock jock Rush Limbaugh declared that "even Blair" now believes "only pinheads support environmentalism". Yet at first Blair's logic might seem appealing. Isn't technology a far better way to deal with this problem than imposing restrictions for the sake of it? Who wants harsh restrictions on our appetites if there can be a smooth, pain-free transition to cleaner fuels?

The only problem with this charming sing-song is that it is based on a series of false oppositions borrowed from the US right, designed to obscure the real solutions. Blair acts as if there are two options: do you want treaties to limit greenhouse gases, or do you want technologies to do the same job? But his own Government's policies show that this is bogus. Treaties create the need for technology. They aren't opponents, they are Siamese twins. If you have to cut emissions, of course you will dedicate more energy to finding ways to do it. When Britain signed up to the Kyoto Treaty, it suddenly had a huge incentive to build wind farms and other renewable energy sources.

No environmental problem has ever been solved by the market alone, using its "hidden hand". From catalytic converters to the scrubbers on top of power stations, they have all required legislation and international treaties - exactly the things Blair is now renouncing as unnecessary.

And it gets weirder. Blair then set up another false choice: do you want a growing economy, or cuts in greenhouse gas emissions? But less than a year ago, he said, "We can have a strong, growing economy while addressing environmental issues. Between 1990 and 2002 the UK economy grew by 36 per cent, while greenhouse gas emissions fell by around 15 per cent... The very act of solving [global warming] can promote growth, creating a space for scientific discovery and hence investment."

How did Blair swing so far away from his own stated position? Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, offers an "educated guess": "Blair was determined at the start of 2005 to drag the Bush administration into the climate change process. He found, not surprisingly, that they won't agree, but he persisted, and instead of moving them, they've ended up moving him. He's given in and given up. Now you hear him and think, 'Where has this man's mind gone?' "

Blair has brought his global warming policies almost into sync with the Bush White House, who have been stressing that any "solution" must be voluntary and market-based - in other words, just hot hurricane-fuelling air. So your global warming strategy and mine are now just a few steps behind an administration who have thanked ExxonMobil - one of the world's great environment-destroyers - for their "active involvement" in writing their climate change strategy, and who have employed corporate lobbyists to water down their own scientists' reports. It's one thing to side with these people in toppling a fascist dictator, however flawed the war - but to side with them on trashing the planet?

Blair rationalises this by saying he is pursuing the only course that it "politically possible". This is Blair's Get Out of Jail Free card for every bad thing he does: it's not my fault, the political reality made me do it. But there's a reasonable case to be made for this, at first. Why cling to a policy, he asks, which cannot succeed? Isn't it better to get something - however small - than nothing? But we are confronting a clash between the politically possible and the physically possible. As Jonathon Porritt, Blair's former environmental adviser, said yesterday, "It's no good our leaders lining up like a whole array of King Canutes in front of the rising sea, saying 'Go away, we haven't got time to deal with you right now.' "

And isolating Bush on global warming - something that has long been in Blair's grasp - would achieve a great deal. Already 74 per cent of Americans (according to a recent Zogby poll) think voluntary emissions won't work. Several of the contenders for the 2008 election are strongly in favour of caps on emissions.

But seeing that nice Mr Blair reinforcing Bush's myths on television - relax and wait for the technology, folks - whacks environmentalism with the force of a Grade Five hurricane. By embracing the climate-trashers, Blair doesn't soften them. He emboldens them - and, with his new treaty-trashing rhetoric, he is seriously at risk of becoming one of them.