Published in the New Statesman, on 17th May 2004.

The Prime Minister called climate change “the most important issue that we face as a global community”, in a recent speech. But what really caught the attention of journalists was his deliberate dropping of the word “environment” from his prepared text.

Tony Blair increasingly shares the view of his science adviser, Sir David King, that climate change is not simply another environmental issue to be dealt with when time and resources permit. A stable climate, like national security, is a public good without which economic prosperity and political freedom are impossible. Next year, Blair will hold both the chairmanship of the G8 and, in the second half of the year, the presidency of the European Union. He will have a unique opportunity to reinvigorate the global response to climate change, and has made it clear that he intends to seize the opportunity.

To succeed in his ambitions for next year, Blair must get this year right. And that means securing Russian ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. Without it, the Kyoto process would collapse politically, encouraging pressure from industry to weaken action on climate in the EU. Globally, a new framework would no doubt emerge in time – but it would probably be weaker than Kyoto.

Russian ratification is more possible than many people think. At a recent meeting with the EC’s Romano Prodi, President Vladimir Putin distanced himself from the stridently negative, and widely publicised, views of his economic adviser Andrei Illarionov and, in effect, invited the EU to make ratification politically attractive to him. This would entail building the right linkages between climate change and the negotiations over Russian accession to the World Trade Organisation.

The elements of such a deal are already clear. But it cannot be accomplished without a more joined-up approach to trade and environment policy in both Brussels and Whitehall. This can be secured only by a strong lead from Blair himself. In Europe, this entails close collaboration with both Jacques Chirac of France and Gerhard Schroder of Germany. (The latter’s support would be more easily won if Blair gave a positive response to an invitation to attend the German chancellor’s mega-conference on renewable energy in Bonn in June.) In Britain, it entails ensuring that trade officials, often aided and abetted by some advisers from inside No10 itself, do not form an alliance against the Department for Environment. It also requires Blair to resist the consistent pressure from Patricia Hewitt, at the Department of Trade, to abandon the target for reducing emissions by 20 per cent.

The Prime Minister has shown elsewhere that he can display formidable political will when his moral passions are aroused. To take the opportunities he has presciently identified on climate change will not demand so high a price – but the consequences of failure may be even more far-reaching.