Oliver Letwin: Climate change is the big test for Blair and G8

If discussions end with a whimper rather than a bang, we will have moved backwards

Share
Related Topics

On Africa, even if Gordon Brown's International Finance Facility proposal has been reduced in scale, there has been real progress. But on climate change, the signs so far are not encouraging. If, despite frantic, last-minute negotiations, the G8 climate change discussion ends with a whimper rather than a bang, we won't merely have failed to move forward - we will have moved backwards.

The risk is that, if the Prime Minister's hype isn't followed by visible advance, the world's media will conclude that it is all too difficult; the diplomats will become disenchanted; and the politicians will find it even more difficult to raise the necessary enthusiasm the next time round.

Some sceptics will, of course, be delighted if Mr Blair's attempt to put climate change centre-stage fails. They argue that we should not commit resources to the uncertain challenge of climate change when we could be addressing problems whose existence is certainly not in doubt - above all, global poverty. There are mischievous moments when one could wonder whether Mr Brown is covertly in this category.

But the sceptics are taking a reckless gamble. They are betting that, by avoiding action now, we can save some eco- nomic costs in the short term, without facing an immense social and economic penalty in the long term. If they are wrong, and the mainstream scientists are right, the long-term price of saving some money now will be terrible.

This is an unequal bet. It is not worth risking catastrophic climate change in the future for the sake of avoiding a mild reduction in the rate of global economic growth today - especially when many of the measures required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions also have wider environmental benefits.

The key to progress is the UN Convention on Climate Change which the last Conservative Government persuaded the US to sign. Ironically, this convention explicitly signs up to the scientific concerns that Mr Blair is now finding it difficult to persuade Mr Bush to accept.

It begins with the words: "acknowledging that change in the Earth's climate and its adverse effects are a common concern of humankind, concerned that human activities have been substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, that these increases enhance the natural greenhouse effect, and that this will result on average in an additional warming of the Earth's surface and atmosphere and may adversely affect natural ecosystems and mankind ..." One could hardly be clearer than that.

Given the existence of the convention, and the clarity of its intent, there is little (if any) point in the G8 having long, metaphysical debates. The Prime Minister's task, as the master-negotiator, is to find a practical way of maintaining momentum. This must mean using the framework provided by the convention - and the meeting of the convention countries in Montreal later this year - to coax the United States on one side and the emerging giants of India and China on the other into simultaneous movement. Simultaneity is the crux, because it is the fear of competitive disadvantage, rather than the fear of the absolute economic costs, that is really driving the reluctance of the three great, dynamic economies of the US, India and China to take serious action.

What is needed is a system of mutually assured action, in which each party eventually agrees to a package of targets and delivery mechanisms, secure in the knowledge that all other parties are headed in the same direction.

It would be wholly unrealistic to expect an agreement of mutually assured action at Gleneagles. But what could still be achieved is the establishment of a critical path towards such an agreement. This would provide a new momentum and prevent the over-hyped Gleneagles meeting turning into a serious reverse.

The right analogy for the climate change negotiations is not global poverty. It is nuclear weapons and strategic arms reduction. We need to move from a position in which we are threatened with mutual destruction to one in which, through a series of strategic carbon reduction treaties, we achieve progressive economic and environmental détente. Perhaps what we are missing is Henry Kissinger?

The writer is the shadow Environment Secretary

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

M&E Construction Planner Solihull

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Car, Healthcare, Pensions: Progressive Recruitment...

Senior Java Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Leading Sof...

Chemistry Teacher

£90 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are looking fo...

SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Assistant Editor: Domestic violence is no petty matter

Siobhan Norton
 

There’s nothing wrong with GM

Steve Connor
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried