Published in The Guardian, on 29th June 2005.
Civil servants long ago discovered the infinite elasticity of the English language. It can be greatly stretched to cover the holes where policies should be, providing an essential service to their political masters whose failures of will would otherwise be all too nakedly exposed. There will be a glorious display of this skill in the text on climate change which Tony Blair will present as the outcome of his G8 summit in Gleneagles next Wednesday.
Normally, by the time the public and media discover there is little substance beneath the over-stretched language, the headlines have been spun and attention has moved on. The leaking of two versions of the text in the past few weeks gives us a unique opportunity to decode next week’s outcome in advance.
It will be in two parts. There will be a forcefully worded declaration of perhaps 15 paragraphs, setting out the leaders’ big idea for tackling climate change. There will also be a 30-paragraph Gleneagles Plan of Action, containing their specific commitments.
The working process of international negotiations makes much use of square brackets. These are placed round the text on which the negotiators disagree. As the negotiations between officials proceed and agreement is reached, they are removed. The final sticking points are then left to the politicians to sort out.
A lot can thus be deduced from what happens to those brackets. For example, the opening paragraph of the text leaked last week has brackets round the phrase “our world is warming”. It is not hard to guess where opposition to this wording comes from. If it appears in the final text, the prime minister has won a vital argument with President George Bush on climate science. If it is absent, he lost.
And the big idea is? Wait for it – a “dialogue on climate change, clean energy and sustainable development”. In other words, the outcome of a year of discussing what to do about climate change will be a firm commitment to have another discussion of what to do about climate change.
The words in the Gleneagles Plan of Action are equally revealing. Interestingly, this was previously called a “programme of action”. Presumably, someone noticed that Iraq has taught us all to interpret the existence of a programme as meaning the absence of any actual weapons and worried that we might similarly interpret an “action programme” as meaning the absence of any action. They would not have been wrong.
It is the verbs and nouns that matter. About 20 different verbs are used to express the leaders’ promises. There will be lots of things to “encourage”. This verb is used no fewer than 11 times in the 30 paragraphs. The rest of the verbs are equally positive in expression and empty of content: seek, invite, promote, develop, work. It is hard to find a single directly deliverable commitment in the whole text.
The nouns are equally indicative of the level of political will. There will be reviews, assessments, studies, analyses and workshops by the score. But there will be no money and no dates. Even the commitment in the first part of the text to “look forward to a report at future summits” has no specific date attached to it.
The vacuity of this text cannot be blamed on the officials who prepared it; they have done their best in the absence of any clear leadership from the politicians. Everything proposed in the leaked text, including the dialogue, is worth doing. The problem with this text is not with what it says but with what it does not say.
The EU has already agreed that a 2C temperature rise would cause dangerous climate change. If carbon dioxide concentrations exceed 400 parts per million, we know that there is only a small chance of keeping the temperature change within this limit. We know that current levels of greenhouse gas emissions will take us to this level in about a decade. We know that the world is building new coal-fired power stations at a rate of more than one a week. We know now that if all the coal-fired power stations planned for the next 25 years use conventional technology, there is no prospect of stabilising carbon dioxide at safe levels.
There are advanced coal technologies that can be combined with carbon sequestration to reduce those emissions to a safer level. We know that it will take significant public expenditure to deploy them, but we also know that we can afford this cost. It would amount to perhaps $10bn (£5.5bn) a year for the next 20 years – rather less than has already been spent on the Iraq war.
There is a great deal in the Gleneagles texts about doing things to know more. But there is nothing at all about what we must do with what we already know.