John Rentoul: Our green lobby prefers selfish gestures and cheap posturing over political engagement

For all the difference it will make to climate change, Greenpeace might as well urge you to upgrade to a 4X4
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The Independent Online

It was good to see Margaret Beckett reduced to tears at the weekend. There is so much guilt-tripping and spurious emotionalism about the politics of the environment that it was refreshing to see one of the more matter-of-fact, pragmatic members of the Cabinet expressing justifiable joy and relief at the outcome of the Montreal conference on climate change. The deal was "only" an agreement to talk about what is to be done, but it was the best that could be hoped for: now the three biggest producers of global warming gases in the future, the US, China and India, are signed up for the principle of collective action.

Green pressure groups point out that it was only the threat of isolation that finally forced the Bush administration to yield. They are right, but they should be careful. They are delighted that the organisers of the Montreal conference held their nerve and called George Bush's bluff. According to New York magazine, US officials threatened to pull out if the former president Bill Clinton were allowed to address the conference.

The organisers went ahead anyway, and on Friday Clinton laid into his successor's policies as "flat wrong". (He is such a shameless crowd-pleaser: he did it with Dubai students the other day, drawing cheers and a standing ovation for appearing to say that the Iraq war was "a big mistake" when close textual analysis revealed that the mistake was in the handling of the occupation. Do you really think that Hillary would let him say anything else?) Fortunately President Bush overlooked this provocation, but the incident does pose a sharp question for the pious green movement in the rich West.

It now faces a choice. Does it take the lesson from Montreal that sanctimonious Bush-bashing is the way forward? Or does it have any strategy at all for winning over politicians who have to answer to voters in Ohio, Uttar Pradesh or the Chinese National People's Congress?

The omens are not good. If you, moved by the sight of a moist-eyed Margaret Beckett, wanted to know how you could do your bit to ameliorate climate change, you might try to join Greenpeace's "energy revolution". Here are Greenpeace's first three suggestions: "Don't buy Esso; make gas guzzlers a thing of the past; buy clean, renewable electricity". That should do the trick. Carbon-neutral mulled wine anyone? This is the politics of making yourself feel better. For all the difference it will make to climate change, Greenpeace might as well urge you to seek out Esso products, upgrade to a 4x4 and book your holiday flights now.

Why doesn't Greenpeace like Esso? Basically because it does not bother with eco-friendly public relations, as other oil companies do. And how does Greenpeace propose to make gas guzzlers a thing of the past? By putting cardboard pretend wheel clamps on 4x4s saying, "Stop Climate Change Now". Well, that will stop the Chinese building a new coal-fired power station every two weeks. How naive to think a campaign of intimidation aimed at the British urban middle class will result in an entire nation voluntarily switching to low-consumption cars - and the rest of the world following.

As for some paper-shuffling accounting device that pretends that the electricity for the Old Rectory in Upper Do-Goodery has been channelled untouched through the National Grid from a wind farm in Wales, that is the sheerest self-deception. It is for the sort of people who don't like synthetic phonics because they want the natural organic kind.

Only the fourth and last of Greenpeace's suggested actions makes any sense at all. "Tell Tony Blair to take urgent action on climate change." No doubt the Prime Minister will be as grateful for the instructions as Basil Fawlty usually was when told by Sybil to do what he was already doing, but at least this is something that recognises the importance of politics.

The trouble is that politics as practised by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth is too often of the most selfish kind, all "not in my name" posturing and cocking a snook at Bush - a "climate criminal" in Greenpeace-speak - by clapping Clinton. Or climbing the ceiling of the CBI conference hall to try to prevent Tony Blair from announcing an energy review because Greenpeace knows what the conclusions should be.

On that occasion, in fact, Greenpeace probably strung itself up from the girders rather effectively, and unintentionally made a positive contribution to the public debate. Its macho activists drew attention to the fact that the Prime Minister was asking an important question. Given that climate change is so serious, and that all policy options should be considered, should we not at least consider the possibility that allowing nuclear power to lapse by default is a mistake? Greenpeace may well be right, because of the problems of disposing of waste and the risks of terrorist attacks, but it should be making the argument, not seeking to suppress it. At least reopening the issue of nuclear power dramatises the fact that none of the policy options is easy or cheap.

Certainly, a politics of personal responsibility, that expects individuals to make virtuous lifestyle choices, cannot make a significant difference to global warming. It is like the silly Tory jibe of the 1980s: "If you're such a socialist, why don't you volunteer to pay extra income tax?" Because it won't make enough of a difference unless everyone is made to do it. In the case of global warming, it is even harder to mobilise for a collective end: it requires everyone around the world to burn less fuel. That requires a global system of quotas which can be bought and sold, or co-ordinated tax policies around the world. That is much more difficult than sticking rude posters on parked 4x4s.

How much easier just to blame it all on Bush, and then on Blair for being his poodle. Yet how obviously inadequate. Hence the weird ambivalence towards Blair of green pressure groups, torn between admiring his courage and sneering at his Realpolitik towards America. Whenever he said "climate change, is, long term, the single biggest issue that we face", they hailed him as a visionary. Whenever he pointed out that the biggest polluters were not even part of the Kyoto process and that effective action would have to include the US, he was accused of betraying Kyoto.

Now Blair has kept the Kyoto show on the road - even though the Kyoto targets are not going to be met by most of the "virtuous" countries of the world. He has helped to secure an agreement that extends the timescale of Kyoto, and a separate agreement which includes the US, China and India. Margaret Beckett was entitled to be carried away by the euphoria of the breakthrough. But now serious greens are going to have to decide whether to engage or just moralise.

The writer is chief political commentator for 'The Independent on Sunday'