John Rentoul: He who has no election to face is well placed to save the planet

The Columnist
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The Independent Online

He has not always been so concerned about global warming. As Labour's energy spokesman in 1989 he declared that "under Labour the environment will govern our energy policy, not energy policy govern our environment". But the balloon deflated after the Green Party won 15 per cent of the vote in the European elections, and Blair moved on to another brief.

When he became Labour leader, he and Gordon Brown won a great parliamentary victory over the Major government. In December 1994, a Labour motion was carried in the House of Commons to defeat a rise in VAT on domestic gas and electricity. When Blair was elected in 1997, he carried out a manifesto promise to cut the VAT further, to 5 per cent, the minimum allowed by European Union law. The voters may have subscribed to green platitudes if opinion pollsters asked them, but Blair thought that most of us would rather have lower gas and electricity bills. That appeasement, professing an old Labour concern about fuel poverty, cast a grey pall over the new dawn.

True, John Prescott in his first months in office helped negotiate the Kyoto Protocol, which committed many countries, although not the US or the emerging industrial giants such as China and India, to cut emissions of greenhouse gases. But Britain will meet those targets purely by the fortuitous conversion of electricity generation from inefficient coal to efficient gas - a by-product of the defeat of the miners' strike. The result was that Kyoto did not require the short-termism of the British voter to be challenged. Instead of a long-term strategy to conserve energy by raising prices, we could have cheap gas and electricity and still meet our targets, leaving policy on climate change incoherent.

The resistance of the British voter to higher energy taxes was graphically illustrated by the fuel tax protest of September 2000, and Blair's response was again appeasement rather than leadership. He gave only one speech on the environment as leader of the opposition and very few as Prime Minister, all read out with the conviction of a call-centre operative. This started to change only early last year when he said that climate change and Africa were his priorities for Britain's presidency of the G8. Then he described climate change as "probably the most important issue that we face as a global community". Now he has dropped the "probably".

He may have hoped that George Bush, a second-term President similarly freed from the constraints of having to fight another election, would be an ally in challenging the short-termism of wealthy electorates. But no. The officials preparing for the Gleneagles summit this week no longer expect this to be the moment that the Bush administration accepts the science of global warming. But Blair has achieved the goal set out with his advisers last December of using the summit to dramatise Bush's isolation. And Blair's attempt to isolate Bush is very different from Jacques Chirac's - designed to move him, not humiliate him.

Before Christmas I was told that Blair wanted the summit to symbolise the "sense of an increasing majority". That sense was provided by the scientific academies of all the G8 nations last month; by a vote in the US Senate a few days ago which accepted that global warming was real and man-made; and now by Governor Schwarzenegger's article for this newspaper. As a result, what Bush says on the issue transparently makes no sense. Last week, he said that "greenhouse gases are creating a problem, a long-term problem that we have got to deal with", but he cannot bring himself to say where the gases come from and what the problem is.

As a result, the Gleneagles communiqué is likely to be broken-backed. The basis for any agreement on climate change is that energy conservation and clean technology would be worth doing for reasons of self-sufficiency and security of supply, even if the science of global warming were not compelling. It might just be enough to get the US on board for a deal, however imperfect.

Broken-backed the deal may be, but no less historic for all that. No doubt the usual suspects, when they realise that they cannot accuse Blair of selling out Africa because he has delivered what they wanted, will accuse him of failure over climate change. Where, they will demand, is the pay-back for his support of US policy in Iraq?

Well, this is it. The purpose of rehearsing Blair's indifferent history on green issues is to show how difficult it is for democratic politicians to persuade their electorates of the need for short-term pain for long-term gain. And Bush is not even personally convinced of the long-term gain for the US. So Blair is in effect trying to use his popularity with US opinion to lever the President in the right direction. The pay-back for Iraq is that Bush will not be rude to him about it, but will give a little ground with such grace as he can muster. You do not need to know much about the history of relations between US presidents and British prime ministers to realise that this makes a huge difference.

In any case, the idea that Europeans, in our small cars and small houses, are virtuous because we are prepared to make sacrifices that North Americans are not is baseless. We happen to use less energy, just as the Indians use less than us, but when it comes to changing our lifestyles, European electorates are just as difficult to manage as voters in the US, or India, or Brazil, or South Africa. Blair has come late to this issue, but he deserves credit for breaking away from the politics of appeasing every short-term hypocritical whim of, er, us, and the billions who want to live like us.