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FALLOUT FROM THE CLIMATE TALKS


David Cromwell

The

planet is burning, while politicians fiddle the books. If yet more proof was

needed that capitalist society is rotten to the core, then just look to the

recently collapsed climate talks in The Hague. No agreements, paltry or

otherwise. Just bitter recriminations between John Prescott, Britainís ‘macho’

environment minister, and Dominique Voynet, his ‘tired’ French counterpart.

Meanwhile, the US delegation managed to slouch off back home feeling

self-righteous about making ‘enormous concessions’ after its initial

behind-the-trenches negotiating stance. The ball is now well and truly in the

European Unionís court, so we are confidently told.

Now

that the smoke has cleared a little – how much is fact and how much is fiction?

Is it really true, as Geoffrey Lean wrote in the Independent on Sunday, that

‘business largely supports the Kyoto protocol’? Certainly not in the US, where

the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers,

representing corporate America virtually in its entirety, adamantly opposes any

cuts at all. As David Edwards said recently, ‘what corporate America wants, the

world usually gets’.

And

yet, during the Hague talks, the New York Times was gamely (mis)informing its

readers that the US team was there to save the planet. Oh really? The US has 5

per cent of the world’s population, but is responsible for around 25 per cent of

emissions of global-warming gases. Peter Preston, a Guardian columnist, told his

readers smugly: ‘Guardian readers know this because the Guardian reports it’.

For good measure, he then took aim at the Greens and put the boot in: ‘There is

no pattern to the way they bring their urgent message, the most urgent message

of all.’

But

there are plenty of things even the liberal Guardian doesn’t report for its

readers. Such as how the dice are loaded against the Greens getting their

message across in the mass media: an industry whose systemic corporate bias

continues to block public understanding of the plunder of the planet and ways to

combat it.

In

The Independent – like The Guardian, ostensibly a hard-hitting, probing left-of-centre

newspaper – columnist Hamish McRae also took time out to attack the Greens. In a

piece titled, ‘You don’t have to be a humourless eco-freak to help save the

planet’, he opined: ‘environmental correctness has been pushed by a fringe group

of dedicated but not necessarily very attractive people.’ Try replacing

‘economic globalisation’ for ‘environmental correctness’ and see how more

relevant his remark becomes.

At

the end of the climate talks, the tabloid Mirror led with the spat between

Prescott and Voynet, as did most of the British papers. When challenged to

explain why they did this, rather than focus attention on, say, US

obstructionism at the talks, the Mirror retorted that they were just ‘reporting

the news of the day’. In other words, the paper was acquiescing in government

spin. This approach may allow them continued privileged access to ministers and

fresh ‘news’ leads, but it does little to serve the public appetite for the

truth. Shouldn’t the Mirror – and the other sectors of the press and

broadcasting – be doing what a healthy democracy demands of its fourth estate:

namely, bringing to account those in power? Instead, the usual commercial

constraints, market forces and obeisance to power hold sway.

In

short, there was precious little substance to media coverage of the climate

talks. Tony Blair’s statement that Mr Prescott did an ‘extraordinary job getting

so close to an agreement’ in The Hague was dutifully reported and amplified

approvingly in comment pieces in the mainstream. But Blair’s statement was

clearly part of a damage-limitation exercise for Prescott’s failed strategy.

There

was also – as ever – much media crime by omission. There was virtually nothing,

for example, about the corporate interests that oppose the Kyoto Protocol. Place

this media silence against the warnings of scientists that the climate is

already ‘tainted’ by industrial society and that the Kyoto cuts are ‘meagre’ in

terms of stabilising climate change. Instead, the media has managed to shift the

emphasis in the climate debate from the deep cuts in emissions (60-80 per cent)

that scientists have urged, to the need to adapt to climate change (which is, of

course, also going to be necessary).

While

the media focused on the battle between the US and the EU over the use or abuse

of carbon ‘sinks’ such as forests, the underlying issues of political and

corporate influence in shaping society remained unaddressed. In any case, why

should the US have special dispensation to use forests, including great

monocultural swathes of fast-growing trees that would devastate biodiversity, as

carbon sinks to offset substantial cuts in emissions? How reliable is the

science of carbon sinks, anyway? What happens if forests later release their

stock of carbon, if and when they burn, as they are more likely to do in a

warming world? And how equitable is it for a country with a twentieth of the

world’s population to usurp a quarter of the global atmosphere to dump its

pollution?

Not

at all, according to environmentalists such as Aubrey Meyer, who believes that

the concept of equity is crucial. Under the auspices of the Global Commons

Institute, the London-based lobbying group he helped to set up with friends from

the Green Party, Meyer has been promoting a simple and powerful concept that may

yet break the deadlock of climate negotiations.

What

it boils down to is that everyone in the world has an equal right to a share of

greenhouse gas emissions. Taking as their starting point the figure of 60 per

cent cuts to stabilise atmospheric CO2 levels, Meyer and mathematician friend

Tony Cooper have calculated what level of greenhouse gas pollution each nation

should be allowed. Their eye-catching computer graphics illustrate past

emissions and future allocation of emissions by country, achieving per capita

equality by 2030, for example. After this date, emissions drop off to reach safe

levels by 2100.

This

so-called ‘contraction and convergence’ in emissions has already become the

climate policy of China, India and the whole of Africa. It may be the only

approach that developing countries are willing to accept. That, in turn, may

well interest even the US, given that Congress appears unlikely to ratify the

Kyoto Protocol without some commitment from developing nations. [Whether Bush or

Gore is in power will make less difference than the mass media would have us

believe on the climate treaty, and dozens of other policy issues.]

Meanwhile,

for the British government to blame EU Green politicians for the collapse of the

climate talks in The Hague, while the US maintains its god-given right to dirty

economic growth, is to be complicit in climate crime. Come general election time

- probably next May – it will not be forgotten.

David

Cromwell is a climate scientist and author of the forthcoming book

"Private Planet", to be published in 2001.

 

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