Global Warming Back On The Agenda
Geoff Kitney, Europe Correspondent

29 May 2004
Australian Financial Review

2004 Copyright John Fairfax Holdings Limited.

Europe sees its leadership role on global warming protocols as the chance to become a world counterforce to the US.

It's a bank holiday long weekend in England and the forecast is for rain. No news in that, you would think. As they get ready to get away for a few days, which is the English habit when the banks (and just about everything else) are closed on the Monday, umbrellas and waterproofs are the first things packed.

But this bank holiday weekend the forecast rain will be less unwelcome than you might expect. Rainfall in many parts of the UK in May is only half the average and the hydrangeas are wilting. Above-average temperatures have been recorded for much of the month and a feeling of dread the English are not used to is taking hold in the hearts of many gardeners: that another long, hot summer may be ahead.

Hot summers are not unknown in the UK. But, all English weather cliches aside, a second successive hot summer will be big news, as it will be across Europe.

Last summer's scorcher, which saw temperatures in normally temperate Europe soar to Australian inland highs and created mass suffering among the sick and elderly who suffocated in un-airconditioned homes and hospitals, was a 1-in-100-years weather event.

Two scorchers in a row would heighten fears already rising, with the increasing temperature, that global climate change is indeed advancing much faster than even the gloomiest scientific predictions suggested.

And they don't need to go to see The Day After Tomorrow, Roland Emmerich's latest mayhem movie (released across Europe this weekend and offering an apocalyptic vision of the impact of global warming) to be extremely alarmed by the threat posed by climate change.

They need only to read the official reports to Prime Minister Tony Blair from his chief scientist, David King. King offers only a slightly less alarming scenario for the impact of global warming based on science than Emmerich does based on trying to scare the pants of his audiences.

In advice to Blair, King has warned that climate change is a bigger world threat than terrorism. He says the latest data from a range of research projects is conclusive proof that the earth is warming much more rapidly than previously recognised, that this is substantially due to human activity, and that urgent global political action is needed to deal with the threat it poses to life on earth.

The chief scientist's vision of the world without such corrective action is of all but the Antarctic region being uninhabitable by the end of this century: that is, children born today may live to see a catastrophic change to life on earth caused by climate change.

King says this grim vision is based on evidence: carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are already 50 per cent higher than at any time in the past 420,000 years. Sixty million years ago the last time they were at this level warming of the earth's atmosphere caused a massive reduction of life on earth.

To the British Prime Minister's discomfort, King published a controversial article in the January edition of the American journal Science scathingly critical of the Bush administration's attitude to climate change.

King was advised by Blair's office to stick to the science and leave the politics to Blair. But his advice has clearly had a powerful impact on the Prime Minister.

Before the meeting of the eight leaders who make up the world's most powerful political club the G8 on Sea Island, Georgia, to be hosted by US President George Bush on June 9, Blair has publicly backed King's view that global warming is the most serious long-term issue facing the world.

Blair signalled that he would step up his campaign within the G8 Japan, Germany, France, Italy, Canada and Russia are the other members for urgent and concerted global action to reduce greenhouse gases and slow the rate of climate change. When Britain takes over the presidency of the G8 next January, Blair has committed himself to making action on global warming his top priority.

His goal is to get the US to change its mind and sign up to the Kyoto protocol, although this only seems achievable if his partner in the war on terrorism, Bush, is defeated in November and he can then form a partnership in the war on global warming with President John Kerry.

But in seeking this role Blair faces strong competition in Europe. Last year's simmering summer has sharply intensified the domestic politics of climate change and the environment.

In France, where an estimated 18,000 elderly and invalid people died of heat-related causes during last August's 40-plus heatwave, President Jacques Chirac is using the environment to try to rebuild his credibility in the face of growing disenchantment with his centre-right government.

Chirac has proposed a constitutional change which would give environmental issues as much weight as human and social rights.

Chirac's Environment Charter would enshrine the right of all French people to "live in an environment which is balanced and respects their health" and outlaw any action deemed a "serious and irreversible" threat to the environment.

Chirac's recently appointed Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin , says of the proposal: "It is very important that France shows itself to be the conscience of the planet."

In their own political club, the European Union leaders' summits, Blair, Chirac and their counterparts from the developed nations of western Europe see climate change as the global issue on which Europe can lead the way. While Britain hesitates to adopt the euro and stamps its feet and demands changes to the proposed EU constitution, on climate change it is in lock-step with its EU partners.

The Bush administration's refusal to sign Kyoto seen by climate-change-fearing Europeans as further evidence of contemptuous, neo-conservative unilateralism has helped reinforce the case being put by ambitious Europeans that it is in the world's best interests for the EU to evolve into a counterforce in wider world affairs, an alternative power representing liberal values and global citizenship.

In this geopolitical equation, the diplomatic manoeuvring of the past few weeks between the EU and Russia over the Kyoto protocol is fascinating.

Russia, under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin , has begun to regain the confidence destroyed by the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union a decade ago. Putin, a democrat by education but a nationalist at heart, wants to show his people that Russia is becoming a force again in world affairs. Russia might still have the world's second-largest nuclear arsenal, but it has the economic clout of NSW. For the vast majority of Russians, the reality of their daily lives is that they are living in a developing country with living standards far below the West's.

The climate-change issue, though, has given Russia clout it has not had since the red flag was lowered for the last time.

For the Kyoto treaty to come into effect and set binding targets for reducing greenhouse gases, countries accounting for more than 55 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions must sign up to it. With the US accounting for 24 per cent of global emissions and refusing to have anything to do with it, Russia, which emits 17 per cent, has effectively been given the casting vote. Its greenhouse gases and its decision here determine whether Kyoto lives or dies.

The Russians have been wrestling with this responsibility for two years: as a developing nation Russia desperately needs to accelerate economic growth and encourage foreign investment. Global business has been putting immense pressure on the Russian leadership to put its own development interests first and scuttle Kyoto. Putin's chief economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, has strongly opposed signing up to Kyoto, warning that it would be better "to be growing than to be green". He says for Russia to meet its Kyoto obligations it might suffer a 2 per cent loss of economic growth, which would be paid for by struggling Russians.

Until a couple of weeks ago it appeared that Illarionov had persuaded Putin to reject Kyoto. But for Putin, Kyoto was only part of a the story: for months, behind the scenes, the EU has been signalling to Putin that, if requirements on tariff levels, energy prices and marketing were met by Russia, it might drop its opposition to Russia joining the World Trade Organisation.

Signing up to the WTO has been one of the key objectives of the Putin presidency, seen by him as critical to Russia's enmeshment in the global economy and to persuading investors that it was a safe place to invest.

And so, while the EU and Russia rejected nasty suggestions that they have done a political deal, last Friday they announced a happy coincidence: they had an agreement by which the EU would back Russia into the WTO. Oh, and by the way, Putin had decided to move quickly to ratify Kyoto.

The timing is unclear, but the implications of Russia giving Kyoto the critical mass it needs to come into effect are not: for all its flaws and doubts about its actual impact on reducing greenhouse gases, a revived Kyoto agreement would have a major political impact, giving leaders like Blair a platform from which to fight for something better and more effective.

It would also put global warming firmly on the agenda in Australia, possibly at the least convenient time for John Howard. Kyoto alive and kicking is probably something Howard would prefer not to have to deal with in a campaign showing danger signs for the coalition.