Leading article: The road to destruction

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The Independent Online

It is as if we were living on two planets. Here, in the real world, the evidence that global warming is already doing immense damage to the earth is mounting with terrifying speed. In the past two weeks alone, we have learned that the Greenland ice cap appears to be on the point of irreversible meltdown, that the Kalahari Desert is to double in size, that sea and bird life has collapsed dramatically off the US Pacific coast and that the mighty Gulf Stream (which keeps Britain habitable) has abruptly weakened. This year is expected to be the hottest ever, and hurricanes are breaking all records. It is impossible to dispute the conclusion last week of the Environment Secretary, Margaret Beckett, that this is "the greatest threat facing mankind".

But over on the other planet - in Montreal, where 189 nations are meeting to work out how to combat the threat - the issue is being tackled with all the urgency and productiveness of a more than usually constipated parish council discussing how to celebrate the Queen's putative centenary. No one expects an outcome that remotely begins to address the gravity of the crisis; the best that can be hoped for is an agreement on more talks next year, and even that will be hard to achieve. There is no chance of any decision on concrete action. Here is Mrs Beckett again, having apparently travelled from one planet to the other: anyone suggesting that the conference should agree to binding pollution reduction targets when the ones agreed under the Kyoto protocol run out in 2012 is, she said, "living in cloud-cuckoo-land".

Much of this is, of course, down to the oil-soaked obduracy of President Bush and his bunch of corporately compromised cronies. By refusing even to talk about targets, they have ensured that the negotiations take place in an atmosphere of unreality. But it is not just him: Tony Blair, for example, seems to have a different face for each planet. In one world - as when trying to persuade Britain to embrace nuclear power last week - he voices strong support for a binding treaty to succeed Kyoto; in the other - as when with senior members of the Bush administration - he casts doubt on it. Internationally, he deserves enormous credit for having put the issue high on the agenda through making it a priority at the Gleneagles summit; domestically, he has earned brickbats for having presided over an increase in Britain's carbon dioxide emissions. Meanwhile, John Prescott - the hero of Kyoto, who brokered the treaty - will tomorrow unveil a new greenhouse building code that actually lowers standards for energy consumption.

The marchers who demonstrated around the world yesterday are entitled to ask who is really in cloud-cuckoo-land and to demand that our leaders return to the real world. Britain, holding the presidency of the EU, should be taking a lead in pressing for action in Montreal, rather than merely holding the ring. Mr Blair, as Charles Kennedy argues on page seven today, should confront President Bush: the only time the President has shifted his position is when Britain effectively threatened to isolate him at Gleneagles; cosying up to him has been disastrous. The rest of the rich world should commit itself in principle at Montreal to setting new, stricter targets to follow Kyoto. If this means leaving him on his own planet, so be it: to join him will doom the earth to destruction.

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