Kyoto Summit: Greedy Americans and nice, wet Europeans - the politics of weather

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The Independent Online
How will the Kyoto Climate Summit, which starts on Monday, play in most of the British media and across Europe? Well, something like this. The greedy, selfish US, with its air-conditioners and big cars and isolationist, right-wing politicians, refuses to stop guzzling fossil fuels and insists on remaining the world's biggest climate-polluter - out of short-term self-interest. But the enlightened European Union holds out to the last minute, insisting that all the wealthy countries make a big cut in their greenhouse gas emissions. In the end there is some weak and disappointing compromise that does little to save the world from flood, drought and searing heat.

It isn't an unreasonable portrayal. But once you start to peer into the murky big picture behind this summit, you may find the American position a little more understandable.

Considered on a time-scale of thousands of years, the Earth's climate fluctuates naturally, wildly - and dangerously. The last ice age ended but 10,000 years ago. The next one may be round the corner. Our Western world has been built in a few hundred years of mild, pretty stable climate. We ought to be grateful for this and leave it well alone; instead we have started interfering by raising the level of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, the best of our scientists can give us only vague ideas about how quickly those changes will proceed and what they will be. At least another 10 years will pass before they can tell, with any certainty, what climate change will mean for most nations over a 20-to-100-year time- scale.

That makes negotiations on how to tackle the problem immensely complicated. It can only be solved collectively, with countries finding some agreement on how to share out the sacrifices that have to be made. But how can a government agree to take action that may cost money and votes back at home, when it does not know what it stands to lose if there is no action?

Furthermore, climate change cannot be "stopped" in any normal sense of the word. It has already begun, and if we immediately did everything we could to fix it, such as stopping all consumption of fossil fuels overnight, it would still keep on changing deep into the next century - albeit more and more slowly.

In any case, calling such an immediate halt is out of the question, for our economies and standard of living are addicted to gas, oil and coal and can be only slowly weaned off them. As we burn our way through the vast quantities of remaining fossil fuel reserves way beyond the millennium, we are committing our Earth to centuries of further climate changes and increasing danger. This is an issue not just for the next century but for the deep future - we need to think about it not just in terms of children and grandchildren, but on the same time-scale as those who built medieval cathedrals. For it is in this distant future, beyond 2100, when the ice caps of Antarctica and Greenland will slip into the sea and raise its level by hundreds of feet - unless we start turning the supertanker now.

The goal of the Kyoto delegates should be to slow down the rate of change to a level that our most vulnerable systems - farming, forestry, low-lying islands, water resources - can cope with, and eventually stabilise the climate.

We have only a dim idea of what is tolerable, and where the balance lies between the costs of acting now and the costs of climate damage - or coping with it - in future. But it seems certain that achieving this goal means making deep, global cuts in the next few decades in the emissions of climate- changing gases, principally carbon dioxide, which comes mainly from burning fossil fuels. Yet our consumption of these fuels is rising steadily, in line with population and economic growth, at around 2 per cent a year.

We certainly can cut fossil fuel consumption, especially in the developed world. After all, we use it extremely wastefully because it is so abundant and cheap, and there are alternatives. But making these changes is certain to be painful for governments - they will have to upset powerful industrial lobbies, raise the cost of fuel, risk the wrath of voters. They are being asked to take all this pain with no precise knowledge of what the gain is; what exactly is in it for individual nations. The information is unavailable.

That is the main reason why these negotiations are so difficult and so stalled. The European Union's solution is to say that the developed nations must lead the way with a simple, decisive action - they must all cut their emissions by 15 per cent by 2010 compared to their 1990 level. That would make a real start on tackling the threat, and it will also show the Third World - whose emissions are rising rapidly, and will soon overtake the West's - that the rich countries are serious. It is a bold, moral stance, but somewhat compromised by the fact that under this proposal some of the poorer EU countries will be allowed to raise their emissions drastically - by more than 30 per cent. Other, wealthier countries, such as Britain and Germany, will offset this by making even deeper cuts.

All the other developed countries are willing to give far less. Australia, whose economy is particularly reliant on heavy fossil fuel use, insists that it must be allowed to raise its fossil fuel emissions by 18 per cent. The US advocates stabilising annual emissions between 1990 and 2010. It also insists that big, fast-industrialising developing countries such as India and China will have to make some sort of commitment in Kyoto to restrain their fast rising emissions.

And here's another huge problem in these negotiations. The bad guys, us in the West who have caused the great bulk of climate change so far, hold nearly all the cards. It looks as though we will suffer the least as the climate changes, because our wealth and technology put us in a fairly strong position to cope with rising sea levels and changes in temperature and rainfall. Poor, densely populated nations will be far more at risk, yet they have little negotiating strength. As the climate summit opens, the Third World is divided and confused about the issue. If they refuse to discuss controlling their emissions, and there is no agreement and no controls, then they will be the biggest losers. It is extremely unfair.

We have had less than 10 years of international negotiations over climate change, and a century or more of them lies ahead. This climate diplomacy will make the protracted superpower negotiations over nuclear weapons and the endless Gatt world trade talks look quick and easy in comparison. Kyoto is just the beginning of the beginning. The most important thing of all is to make any agreement legally binding and enforceable - if there is no progress on that, the planet really is in trouble.

So the big picture peddled by the press is half right. America looks pretty ugly. But Europe's grand idea of a simple, moral gesture offers no lasting solution.