Michael McCarthy: PM seizes chance to put environment at the top of his agenda

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After the war leader, the green leader. Tony Blair's major speech on climate change last night was an unmistakable signal that the British Prime Minister feels the world needs an inspirational figure to head up the fight against global warming - and that he is it.

After the war leader, the green leader. Tony Blair's major speech on climate change last night was an unmistakable signal that the British Prime Minister feels the world needs an inspirational figure to head up the fight against global warming - and that he is it.

There is certainly a gap in the market. Although Margaret Thatcher gave prominence to the dangers of climate change as long ago as 1988, no other senior head of government, no really huge and internationally charismatic character, has since made it his or her main priority. Al Gore might have had it high on his list had he become president instead of George Bush, but it wouldn't have been right at the top.

Yet that's where Mr Blair is putting it. He spelt that out last night, and spelt out too just how he is going to push climate change up the international agenda with the two big diplomatic roles which fortuitously fall to the UK next year - chairmanship of the G8, the club of rich countries, and presidency of the European Union.

Mr Blair speaks with all the fervour of the late convert. For the first three and a half years of his premiership, he said hardly a word on global warming, or other green matters, come to that: he was preoccupied with education, health, and crime. But then, beginning in October 2000, he made a series of speeches on the environment (last night's being the fifth) each of which recognised more than the last that climate change is an overwhelming threat to human civilisation.

He has been persuaded by the science. He certainly agrees with the Government's Chief Scientist, Sir David King, who earlier this year said global warming was a greater threat to the world than international terrorism. And he appears to have been influenced more recently by increasingly ominous evidence that the climate change process itself seems to be speeding up. It's simply a question of pointing out to people the way things really are: that's why we have leaders.

Mr Blair himself recognised last night that many of us still think global warming is something far off, something wacky that may happen in the future: wake up, he said, it's happening now, and it threatens us all, you, me, our children. His vision is remarkably lucid: he sees with perfect clarity that the Kyoto protocol, the climate treaty over which there has been such argument, is entirely inadequate anyway; that the Americans must be brought back into the fold; and that even more importantly, the Chinese and the Indians with their vast expanding economies must join the fight to cut back greenhouse gases as soon as possible.

Getting CO 2 emissions down, it has long been thought, will involve painful sacrifices. Ever the brilliant populist politician, Mr Blair hinted at none of that last night. He presented countering climate change merely as a win-win situation, where the very technologies needed to fight global warming, such as low-carbon energy and transport, present a huge economic opportunity for Britain, a potential green industrial revolution. You can see why. He wants people everywhere to embrace the cause.

He said last night there is no more important one for the world. He's right.

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