Climate change after Gleneagles

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The decision by G8 leaders to organise formal talks with leading developing countries on limiting global warming is more significant than it might appear. But it does not compensate for the continued shortsightedness of the United States.

Even a seasoned political operator like Britain’s prime minister Tony Blair will have found it difficult to swallow the relative failure of this year’s G8 summit meeting to produce any significant movement on the issue of climate change.

Blair began his campaign for a different outcome more than a year ago. When he took over the presidency of the G8 group of most industrialised countries at the end of last year’s summit in the United States, he made it clear that achieving a political consensus on the need to move forward would be one of the top priorities of his term of office (the other being the need to tackle poverty in Africa).

But the odds were stacked against him from the beginning – and remained so. The main target of Blair’s efforts has been the United States, or rather the Republican administration, led by president George W. Bush. And the administration, reflecting deep scepticism among a large swathe of US voters towards any international agreement that could impinge on its energy-intensive lifestyle, has seen little reason to shift its position.

British negotiators remained optimistic, at least on the surface, in the months leading up to this year’s meeting, which was held at the beginning of July in Gleneagles, Scotland. There was hope that, at a minimum, the United States could be persuaded to sign up to a document that committed developed countries to significantly increase their expenditure on climate-related research, particularly in the field of non-renewable energy.

Even this, however, proved to be too much for the US administration, apparently averse to making any kind of financial commitment that, in its eyes, would bind its hand in its dealings with Congress. So the commitment to boosting energy research was watered down, as was a section on managing the impact of climate change, which had talked about the resulting floods, droughts, crop failures and rising sea levels.

The final communiqué merely states that the G8 leaders recognise the need for “increased commitment to international cooperation in and coordination of research and development of energy technologies”. They also pledge “to continue to take forward research, development and diffusion of energy technologies”, with a particular emphasis on the use of hydrogen as an “energy carrier” – a favourite topic of Bush.

Light in the tunnel?

There remain two glimmers of hope. The first lies in the small but significant shift in the language to which Bush and his political colleagues were eventually persuaded to agree. The final political communiqué states that climate change “is happening now”, and that human activity “is contributing to it” (see G8 brings US into climate change debate’).

This is a far cry from the full-blooded acknowledgement that Blair had been hoping for. This would have accepted that human activity is in fact largely to blame for the current period of global warming. The immediate corollary is that such warming will continue unless and until humans curtail the activities that are causing it.

Nevertheless it is slightly closer to this position than previous high-profile statements by the Bush administration, namely that any links between human activity and climate change remain essentially unproven. The significance in the wording to which the United States has now signed up in public is that it will make it slightly easier for critics both within and outside the country to claim that their demands for action are compatible with the official US position.

The importance of dialogue

The second ray of hope lies in what was perhaps the most significant outcome of the Gleneagles meeting, namely a commitment to a new round of dialogue, which will begin in November. This will specifically include the large developing countries, such as China and India, whose own demands for energy to fuel their economic growth are increasingly a focus of international attention in climate negotiations (see ‘Where next after Kyoto?’).

For those seeking instant action, agreement on a new round of talks might appear to be a second-best solution. Indeed, in other circumstances it might be interpreted as a deliberate effort to marginalise the issue from the political process, in the hope that nothing actually emerges.

But at present there is a sharp focus on what happens when the Kyoto Protocol, pledging most of the developed world to significant reductions in carbon emissions, comes to an end in 2012. And in particular, many are seeking to find ways in which the major developing countries can be brought into the game after that date, given their sensitivities about doing so. This issue, for example, will be high on the agenda when the signatories to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change hold the 11th Conference of Parties meeting (known as COP11) in Montreal, Canada, at the end of this year.

In public, such countries continue to resist any such pressure to engage in negotiation that might commit them to reducing their own carbon emissions. They argue that since the problems associated with climate change have been caused primarily by the activities of developed countries, such countries should therefore take the key role in (and responsibility for) resolving them.

In practice, however, even countries such as China are now accepting the need for more flexibility on this point, particularly if they are to be seen as responsible members of the international community, and no longer merely the passive victims of the West’s policies (see ‘Spotlight on China and Climate Change‘).

In this context, therefore, further dialogue — providing that it engages the most important actors, and does so in a meaningful and constructive way — is an essential element of any move forward. The Gleneagles summit appears to have generated a consensus on that point whose significance should not be overlooked.

A more rational approach is needed

But such movement will only occur if the United States is prepared to take a less self-centred and ideologically-determined position than it currently holds. In a more rational world, a consensus within the scientific community would have been sufficient to achieve this. Indeed it is now several years since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes — a scientific body whose initial creation was endorsed by the United States — stated explicitly that most scientists felt human activities lie behind the current phase of global warming.

This consensus was further underlined in a call for action by the scientific communities of the G8 nations – including US National Academy of Sciences – as well as the academies from Brazil, China and India, that was issued at the beginning of June with the explicit intention of influencing the minds of political leaders as they prepared for the Gleneagles summit.

The stance eventually adopted by the US administration in Gleneagles provided little consolation on that point. Indeed the administration continues to shown its disdain for the processes behind such consensus, arguing that, since the opinions of the majority of climate scientists remain challenged by a small minority, they cannot be confused with scientific truth.

This sceptical stance subsequently provoked Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists – a body that has recently been battling anti-intellectualism in the White House on a number of fronts – to issue a statement describing Bush’s success in blocking concrete action on global warming at the G8 Summit as “irresponsible”.

Knobloch pointed out that a majority of members of the US Senate are now calling for mandatory limits on global warming emissions, and that more than 150 US mayors are pledging to reduce their cities’ heat-trapping pollutants to Kyoto Protocol levels. In such circumstances, he said in a statement, “it is time for the president to stop repeating the deceit that reducing global warming pollution will wreck the [US] economy”.

One of the strongest reasons for doing so is that, the longer the United States sticks to this line, the more difficult it will become to persuade the emerging economies of the developing world not to adopt a similar stance. And this will only exacerbate the situation facing those trapped in poverty in other parts of the developing world, on whom the impact of global warming — for example in terms of reducing food productivity — will increasingly be felt (see ‘Climate Change in Africa‘).

It remains a tragedy that the continued determination of the US administration to fly in the face of scientific reason is only making it more difficult to address these issues — as well as the more general debate about the role of science in meeting the needs of developing countries — in any meaningful way.