Leading article: A green star is rising

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The Independent Online
JOHN Prescott bagged himself a couple of pretty big handles when Labour came to power, Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State of the absurdly-large Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. But who would have thought he would add Saviour of the Planet? To be honest, we suspected last May that the pomposity of his titles was in inverse proportion to his likely influence. When he boasted to the Today programme soon after the election that he was going to be greener than John Gummer, this newspaper - which had secretly rather admired the outgoing Conservative minister - had its doubts. But Mr Prescott, along with Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, has turned out to be one of the stars of the New Labour administration. And a green star at that. It is not going too far to say that he single-handedly rescued the Kyoto summit on global warming in December. He criss-crossed the globe, identifying the awkward parties and being nice to them beforehand. Sure, he burned up a lot of environmentally- unfriendly aviation fuel in the effort, but in the long run our children may well be grateful for it.

The Kyoto agreement was historic. Only 20 years ago environment correspondents were writing about the threat of a new ice age. The emergence of a scientific consensus that the real danger lay in the other direction has been sudden, and the political response surprisingly rapid. To have signed up the United States of America, where the right to consume cheap natural resources is as constitutionally fundamental as the right to bear arms, was wholly unexpected. However, the Kyoto deal has yet to be ratified by a Congress that basically does not accept the science of climate change. Still the deal was important because, before an intern in a black beret sidetracked the presidency, Bill Clinton had showed all the signs of being deadly serious in tackling America's grotesquely bloated output of global-warming gases. And American public opinion showed the first signs of registering that something had to be done.

Part of the significance of this weekend's summit of G8 environment ministers at Leeds Castle in Kent, then, is to restart the process of educating America, now that Mr Clinton's bimbo eruption has subsided. Mr Prescott has the right idea, which is to emphasise the job-creating potential of greening the planet. The trouble is that, in practice, this tends to end up sounding like an army of loft insulators provided by the council. Instead, we need to start selling harder the idea of shifting the tax burden from employment to pollution. That way we should get more jobs and less pollution - an idea which could be sold even in America, where voters hate income tax even more than they hate well-meaning Hollywood environmentalists.

Mr Prescott has another laudable obsession which bears fruit this weekend. He was a merchant seaman and is a keen diver who once swam in the Thames in a frogman's outfit. So he has put the world's oceans on the agenda at Leeds Castle, and they will talk about marine biodiversity, a subject too often neglected in green discussions. Any illusions we might have had that the oceans could literally soak up whatever humanity threw in them should be disturbed by El Nino, the mistily-understood global weather system linked to the pattern of currents in the Pacific and a contributory cause of rainforest fires in the Amazon and Indonesia.

All civilisations tell themselves stories about the end the world. These are always parables involving the punishment of human wickedness. Our civilisation is no different, even though the stories themselves have changed during the transition from the darkness of myth to the light of science. From Noah to the four horsemen of the apocalypse and the millennial visions of wave upon wave of Christian sects, to the fears of Malthus, the terror of nuclear war and now the distant, uncertain but seemingly inexorable environmental crisis, there have always been prophets who spoke the truth and urged the blinkered masses to mend their ways before it was too late. In this, the latest version of the morality tale, Mr Prescott is undoubtedly on the side of the green angels. It has not, paradoxically, been a particularly high-profile form of stardom. But when the histories are written, and the children of today's voters look back, Mr Prescott's achievements could bulk larger than those of any of his Cabinet colleagues.

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