Natasha Walter: Don't forget to save the planet

'We haven't heard much from George Bush about re-engaging with the international community on anything except war'
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The Independent Online

Here we are, theoretically sinking into doom and gloom, watching the pictures of bombs on our television screens, waiting for the recession to bite, but doing it all in a gorgeous burst of sunshine that makes it feel as though the forces of nature are doing their best to cheer us. Last weekend, far from wrapping ourselves against the chill winds of economic decline and domestic treason, everywhere you looked people were striding around in their shirtsleeves, sitting out drinking coffee, and watching children playing muddy games in parks.

Yes, we've just come to the end of the warmest October on record – and, as always, the mild breezes seemed to lift people's spirits as they shrugged off their coats. If Tony Blair is worried about public confidence already, in this bright weather, he should think about what it's going to be like when we are huddled into the December winds.

This is the kind of weather, in fact, that gives climate change a good name. I have, up to now, been rather impervious to the worst predictions of the climate change doom merchants, because I have an irrational belief that weather is somehow beyond science, that one can never truly predict the behaviour of wind and rain and clouds. And this delicious autumn weather seems to be doing all it can to bolster the feelings of those, like myself, who have been shrugging off the alarmist prophecies of environmental scientists.

But if I get rational for a moment I know, really, that my optimism about climate change is misplaced. I know that instead of thinking about Sardinian warblers flitting through St Ives and marsh marigolds coming early to Somerset, I should be concentrating on the floods and tempests that are more commonly seen as the face of climate change in Britain. Or I should look beyond our shores. Because it's not on our heads, clearly, that the most pronounced effects of global warming will fall. The phenomenon that looks so benign as I gaze out of my window into a brilliant blue sky is already showing a malign face in other parts of the world.

One of the most frustrating things with talking about climate change is that definite facts and figures are so hard to come by. Scientists shy away from making specific predictions for specific regions. But they do seem to agree that in the near future Central Asia is likely to suffer cruelly.

One report that tries to predict future situations in individual countries (Hulme and Mitchell, A country-by-country analysis of past and future warming rates, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research), suggests that in Afghanistan, and in surrounding states, temperatures are likely to rise more quickly than in most other parts of the world. That's a bleak scenario, especially as Afghanistan and its neighbouring states have experienced three successive years of severe drought. The drought has lowered the water table, drying up water sources for drinking and irrigation. There were 5 million hungry people in Afghanistan even before 11 September, and the surrounding countries, including Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, are also staring famine in the face.

In other words, the phenomenon that is bringing us warm afternoons in the park and blue butterflies in the woods seems to be bringing searing summer temperatures, falling water tables, parched fields, thirst and hunger to other parts of the world. In Uzbekistan, earlier this year, the government appealed to the World Bank and the United Nations for help to resist the effects of a catastrophic shortage of water. In Tajikistan, the co-ordinator for UN humanitarian aid, Matthew Kahane, said earlier this week: "The country has had its lowest rainfall for 75 years. Families who survived last year by selling their cows and chickens now have no other means of coping."

But the long-term environmental crisis is, understandably, looking rather less urgent right now than the war. If we get reports about Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and Afghanistan on the news, we expect to hear about diplomacy, bombing raids and troop movements, not dried-up rivers and failing crops. Our interest in small, faraway countries with polysyllabic names is still quite limited, though a war in which we are involved will keep us all reading the papers. But what kind of peace will ever be brought to this region and its people, as long as they are facing environmental catastrophe?

Tony Blair has a rosy picture of the peace to come. He has spoken optimistically about the new world order that will arise from the ashes of the old, once the cluster bombs have stopped falling and the refugees have gone home. He has spoken in glowing terms not only about an end to terrorism, but about a new internationalism that should see binding agreements on issues such as climate change.

It's a lovely idea, Tony. But have you checked it out with your head boy, George W Bush? While Bush is clearly delighted to have Blair as an extra ambassador for his policies at the moment, somebody to get on those dangerous aeroplanes and rush around the Middle East chatting up guys with difficult names in order to strengthen America's position, what kind of influence do we really imagine Blair has on Bush's foreign policy?

Certainly, we haven't heard much noise from Bush about wanting to re-engage with the international community on any issue other than waging war. As far as we know, he still sees climate change in the same way that he did in March 2001, when he thought that it was only for wimps and that the big boys should go on as they always had, soaking the planet and guzzling the gas.

It was, as we all know, Bush's notorious decision to abandon the Kyoto Protocol in March 2001 that almost destroyed international action on reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. And despite all the talk that has gone on in the media since 11 September of an end to American isolationism, Bush has shown no signs of wanting America to re-enter the frame on this or any other international environmental or humanitarian project.

This week, representatives of world governments are meeting in Marrakesh to continue thrashing out details of the Bonn agreement, which followed Kyoto. It is already a watered-down agreement of a watered-down agreement, though green organisations say that it could lead to the stabilisation of emissions from industrialised countries. Wouldn't it be a great sign that the United States was ready to join an international consensus for peace, not just for war, if they decided to re-enter the negotiations?

But don't hold your breath – it's unlikely to happen. Instead, get out there and enjoy the last of the sunshine. After all, the forecasts aren't good, and there's still a British winter to come.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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