Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Getting serious about global warming
Ushio - October 2006

In every country around the world, in politics there are some issues on which good politicians know that it is vital to say the right words, but then to avoid any real deeds. Quite often, pensions have been one example. Politicians know they had better express concern about the need for pension reform, to deal with the costs of the ageing society and so forth, but they are reluctant to do anything because of inter-generational politics. They know that current voters will pay any extra costs, while any benefits will go to future generations of voters. And future generations are no use in electing todayís politicians.

For the past decade, much the same has been true of global warming, or climate change. Politicians from all the rich, industrialised countries have said this is a serious, important issue. They even had a big negotiation in Kyoto in 1997, under the banner of the United Nations, to agree on a framework, called the Kyoto Protocol, to deal with the problems caused by growing emissions of "greenhouse gases", mainly carbon dioxide. But then they didnít do very much about it. And they have done nothing much since.

The demands made by the Kyoto Protocol were quite modest: a 5% reduction on greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels. Many countries will not achieve this target. Britain, my own country, probably will do so but British politics nevertheless illustrate the problem. Last year, our prime minister, Tony Blair, made several inspiring speeches saying that global warming is the most important issue facing mankind. But then in May 2005 he called a general election, and during the campaign this "most important issue" was hardly ever mentioned. Politicians, including Mr Blair, know very well that real policies to deal with gas emissions require strict taxes and regulations, which are unpopular.

The same point explains why George Bush and other American politicians have failed to act decisively on global warming. Even for those who believe the scientific evidence that warming is occurring (and many became convinced after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans a year ago), there is great reluctance to accept higher taxes and other stringent measures. Such reluctance is reinforced by the fact that the big fast-developing poor countries, notably China and India, were not covered by the Kyoto Protocol. So many Americans believe that even if they took drastic action, it would make little real difference to the climate as China and India would be producing more and more emissions in any case.

Even in Japan, the country where the Protocol was signed, little has really been done. The Koizumi administration preferred gimmickry, such as "coolbiz" campaigns, to real action. So Japanís gas emissions have kept on growing, making it very difficult indeed for it to meet the Kyoto targets.

If this analysis is correct, then perhaps there is no hope for the planet? Politicians, faced with inter-generational politics, will inevitably choose to do too little, too late.

Actually, I am beginning to think that during the next few years the political mood about global warming, and the political calculations about it, could change, with the result that quite severe and sincere actions might be taken. Let me explain why I think this change could occur.

One reason is the scientific evidence: it is getting more and more convincing. The scope for doubt and scepticism is disappearing. Younger voters in many countries seem to be especially concerned about this issue. This generation is not going to become excited by socialism or by campaigns against the Vietnam war. Global warming might prove to be the issue that excites them. In that case, politicians will be tempted to respond.

A second reason is that energy prices have risen so high, since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. This means that in the rich countries, including America, a lot of people now favour action to reduce their use of fossil fuels, especially oil. They are not idealistic about the environment, but want new technologies to prevent future suffering from volatile oil prices. Politically, this makes it possible for politicians to form a sort of coalition of interest, or broad consensus, putting together environmentally-aware voters with those scared of oil prices. Both will support rules and other measures designed to reduce oil use.

A third reason, though, may prove the most important in the longer term. It is that both China and India are beginning to change their minds about the environment. Until now, both felt that economic growth should be their priority. Environmental concerns could be dealt with later, once their countries were richer. This applied especially strongly in China, which has been more successful than India in developing manufacturing industries.

Now, however, public opinion in China is growing angry about environmental damage. Polluted land, rivers and water are an everyday problem, endangering lives. The Communist Party of China is becoming worried that the environment could become a rallying point for public protests against the government. So it knows that it had better show its concern about it, in order to discourage such protests.

High prices for imported energy are also changing the attitudes of the government and of some businessmen. They are coming to realise that the efficient use of energy, which also means the cleaner use of energy, makes sense in economic terms too. So efforts are getting under way to boost that efficiency.

No doubt they will be inadequate. Many existing, dirty and inefficient factories will resist these efforts. But during the next few years, the government could grasp the opportunity to use international pressure on the environment to force domestic change to take place, in the same way as in the 1990s it used membership of the World Trade Organisation to enforce and accelerate domestic economic reforms.

The way this would happen would be for the governments of China and India to sit down in negotiations for a second Kyoto Protocol, perhaps after a preliminary negotiation with America, Japan and the European Union. The need to satisfy international demands and build alliances would be used by the Indian and Chinese governments to overcome their domestic opponents. And Chinese and Indian membership of the Kyoto effort would convince Americans to ratify the protocol too.

Am I being too optimistic? I certainly hope not, for the sake of future generations.


Biography Audio Books Video Articles Contacts Lectures