With enemies like this, who needs friends?

Published in The Independent, in March 2001.

Exactly a year and a day after Tony Blair stated emphatically that the world had invested too much in the Kyoto Protocol to see it fail, George Bush, equally emphatically re-stated his opposition to the Protocol. This locks two of the world’s closest allies onto a collision course over how to address the world’s most serious environment problem.

Last Wednesday, President Bush replied to a seemingly innocuous letter from Senator Chuck Hagel, long a leading saboteur of any global agreement to tackle climate change, asking him to clarify the new administration’s policy on the issue. The President had already announced a review of the administration’s climate policy though this has not yet begun its work. Nevertheless, in his reply to Senator Hagel, the President went out of his way to attack the Kyoto Protocol, challenge the science of global warming and promise not to impose mandatory carbon dioxide reductions on power plants.

During last year’s bitterly contested election Bush won praise from many American environmentalists for his firm commitment to introduce mandatory carbon dioxide reduction targets. When his new and highly regarded EPA Administrator, Christine Todd Whitman, arrived in Trieste ten days ago for a meeting of G8 Environment Ministers she faithfully repeated her master’s pledge. Last week she was reduced to saying she would ‘follow the President’s lead’ having arrived at the White House to be told he had already signed and sent the letter to Senator Hagel.

Alienating your principal allies and publicly humiliating your senior staff is not the best of ways to take up any office, let alone that of President of the United States, and sits uncomfortably with George Bush’s reputation for amiability which is widely regarded as one of his major political assets. With White House eyes already firmly fixed on 2004, the repudiation of Christine Todd Whitman demolishes in advance one of the few bridges President Bush might have built to those suburban women voters that tilted so decisively to Al Gore last year.

This seems to suggest that the reasons for Vice-President Cheney running such risks with his boss’s future must be overwhelmingly urgent. They were outlined to me with chilling clarity by a senior member of his staff as we sat in the White House on the day the decision was taken: America is running out of electricity, coal is the only cheaply available fuel for electricity generation, nothing can be done that will put up the cost of generating electricity from coal and so there will be no controls on the emissions of carbon dioxide.

Persuasive in its simplicity, this argument bears about as much resemblance to reality as the notorious ‘missile gap’ of the sixties and is likely to be about as much of a political winner for President Bush as was Jimmy Carter’s tortured energy ‘crisis’ he dubbed ‘the moral equivalent of war’.

California is in a mess of its own making with electricity but it will fix it very quickly, albeit at considerable cost to its taxpayers. The rest of America as it deregulates power generation is unlikely to repeat those mistakes. Investing in energy efficiency and transmission infrastructures will be a cheaper and quicker short term boost to meeting electricity demand which will in any case start to drop as the US economy slows from the unprecedented growth of the last five years.

Large coal fired power stations, even if you ordered them today, would not be generating electricity for five or more years, long after the current ‘crisis’ will have been forgotten. In any case, cranking up exploration and production of natural gas would deliver fuel for electricity generation far faster. As for oil from the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge, even if it gets through the Congress, it will be ten years before any oil flows and it only accounts for a tiny percentage of US electricity generation.

There is a profound paradox in the sight of a politician as deeply conservative as Mr Cheney displaying such little faith in the working of markets that he is now promoting massive government intervention to prevent a largely illusory crisis. There are other paradoxes flowing from the President’s letter to Senator Hagel. It is clearly an attempt to kill the Kyoto Protocol, which is seen by American business as being too expensive to implement, and to protect the market for the coal companies that are so important in Cheney’s home state of Wyoming. The real results will be the exact opposite.

The United States cannot unilaterally kill the Kyoto Protocol. It will come into force when it is ratified by the EU, Japan and Russia. US ratification, however desireable, is not essential. Mr Blair has already pledged that Britain will ratify the Protocol before the tenth anniversary of the Earth Summit next year. There is no conceivable story that Alistair Campbell at his very best could offer Mr Blair to explain to the British people why he was giving up on Kyoto after his recent environment speech at Chatham House.

If the Protocol comes into force without American participation the mechanisms it provides to reduce the costs of preventing climate change will be available to British businesses, but not to American businesses. This can hardly have been what the Vice-President intended.  The blame for the President’s action is being placed squarely on intensive lobbying by the coal industry, deepening the perception that coal is the enemy of the climate.  This will undercut the credibility of the substantial efforts now underway in the coal industry globally to develop sophisticated new ways to reduce its burden on the climate. Mr Cheney may have provided some temporary relief for the US coal industry but only at the price of damaging the case for coal in the world at large.

If there is no way forward with President Bush, Mr Blair has no option but to take the only way forward without him. He must now forge a strong partnership with Chancellor Schroeder and President Chirac to ensure that the EU as a whole ratifies in the next twelve months.  And he must take the opportunity of the forthcoming EU-US summit to point out to Mr Bush that it will be difficult for any British Prime Minister to explain to the public why they must eat hormone drenched beef they don’t want , swallow GM foods they dislike and put up with noisier aircraft and the wrong bananas because Mr Bush wishes them to while he will do nothing to help prevent the floods and rising sea levels that threaten their well being.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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