Tony Blair and climate change: a change of heart?

Simon Retallack
8 November 2005

No world leader has done more to raise an environmental problem up the political agenda than Tony Blair. By making climate change a priority for the United Kingdom’s presidencies of the G8 and European Union in 2005, Blair has focused world attention on probably the greatest challenge facing mankind this century. But his recent comments on the subject – leaving the impression that he is abandoning the established consensus on how to tackle climate change through Kyoto-style targets – have caused surprise and confusion. Headlines have decried a “wobbling prime minister” and dire warnings have been issued about undermining the outcome of fifteen years of international climate negotiations.

But is it as bad as that? Has Tony Blair really changed his mind?

Also in openDemocracy, a major debate on “the politics of climate change”, with contributions from writers (Ian McEwan, Bill McKibben), scientists and science writers (David King, Stephan Harrison, Dave Frame, Chris Mooney, Carol Turley), policy analysts (Mayer Hillman, Camilla Toulmin, Tom Burke, John Ashton) and activists (Sophie Harding, Angel Green, Rubens Born).

More recently, openDemocracy writers assess the climate-change aspects as well as the political fallout of hurricane Katrina, including:

Ian Christie, “When the levee breaks”

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A retreat from Kyoto?

The trouble began on 15 September at the Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York. The conversation had turned towards climate change and within a few seconds of taking the floor, Tony Blair announced: “I’m changing my thinking about this.” He remarked that “no country is going to cut its growth or consumption substantially in the light of a long-term environmental problem”; instead, what countries would be prepared to do is “develop the science and technology in a beneficial way.” The main question, Blair argued, was how to put incentives in place to do that, in circumstances where “I don’t think people are going to start negotiating another major treaty like Kyoto.”

The comments set alarm-bells ringing in Whitehall and the environmental community. Blair’s remarks sounded all too much like an endorsement of the policy George W Bush has adopted on climate change over the past five years: talking up the role of technology but making no mention of the need for emission-reduction targets, like those in the Kyoto Protocol, necessary to drive the deployment of low-carbon technologies in the first place. That has not gone unnoticed by opponents of mandatory limits on emissions in the United States Congress, which have already seized on Blair’s contribution to justify continued inaction.

The comments were unfortunate for another reason. From 28 November-9 December, negotiations will be held in Montreal on what should follow the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol, with Britain leading the negotiations on behalf of the European Union and officially seeking a second round of emission-reduction targets from industrialised countries. To dismiss the EU’s chances before the summit has even begun could hardly be helpful, especially as Blair’s prioritising of climate change at the G8 and in the international arena generally gives his voice on the issue so much weight.

For all these reasons, NGO and business leaders were swift to ask for clarification from the prime minister on his return to London. Was he articulating new government policy or did he misspeak? Did he really believe Bush was right all along, or was he just temporarily over-empathising with his American audience?

With so much at stake, the prime minister’s advisors and officials in the department for environment, food and rural affairs (Defra) pledged clarification. They set about drafting an article and a speech for the prime minister which would set the record straight and undo any possible damage done. That was the promise.

But they didn’t count on Blair rewriting them both in a way that raised even greater concerns. In an Observer article (“Get real on climate change”, 30 October 2005), Tony Blair wrote that Kyoto “won’t work as intended” because the US isn’t part of the agreement and it won’t affect growing emissions from India and China. Two days later, in his speech to a G8 meeting of environment and energy ministers from twenty different countries Blair went on to say: “the moment we talk of targets, then people get very nervous and very worried.” He reiterated his argument that “no country will want to sacrifice its economy in order to meet this challenge.” And he added: “in the world after 2012 [after Kyoto’s first phase ends] we need to find a better and more sensitive set of mechanisms to deal with this problem.”

Simon Retallack is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr), and author of the ippr’s report, Setting a long-term climate objective (2005).

He is a contributor to Alternatives to Economic Globalisation: A Better World is Possible (Berrett-Koehler, 2002) and co-author (with Laurent de Bartillat) of a a compendium on the world’s climate-change challenges, STOP (Seuil, 2003).


Whether he intended to or not, the inevitable consequence of the prime minister’s new statements has been to confirm the impression that he has decided to abandon the targets-based approach to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions for the next phase of global action. If that were the case and that view were to gain ground, it would be disastrous for our prospects of preventing dangerous climate change. But it may not be that clear-cut.

Clearing the air

At the heart of the confusion sown by Tony Blair’s remarks is a failure to distinguish properly between industrialising countries and industrialised ones, including the United States. What the British prime minister should have said was that setting emission-reduction targets remained the most appropriate policy for all industrialised countries, given their responsibility for the majority of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions. That is what the growing number of supporters of the “cap-and-trade” approach to tackling climate change in the US Congress, in individual US states and among US businesses, wanted to hear. They are fighting daily and increasingly successful battles in the face of the Bush administration’s ever more isolated opposition and they need Blair on their side.

Tony Blair should have made it much clearer that his message on targets and future frameworks was directed at industrialising countries. Asking them to adopt emission-reduction targets would not be fair at this stage, given that even China emits seven times less and India seventeen times less carbon than the US per head of population. That doesn’t mean to say that industrialising states should not take any action at all under the next phase of global climate talks, but it should be appropriate to their level of prosperity – requiring an evolution in the international approach, not an entirely new system.

Finally, the prime minister should have taken head on instead of repeating the myth that action to mitigate climate change will harm economic prosperity. He should have talked about the jobs that will be created in developing new low-carbon technologies and the harm that will be done to economies worldwide if we fail to prevent dangerous climate change. It’s through seizing opportunities for action now that sacrifice can be avoided.

All that can still and should be said. It is not too late to make amends. The most important step that Tony Blair can take now is to ensure that the UK leads by example. It is critical that the government ignores special pleading by industry lobbyists and announces a package of measures to get Britain back on track to meet the government’s long-standing manifesto pledge to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 20% below 1990 levels by 2010.

The UK is projected to fall far short unless decisive action is taken under the much-delayed Climate Change Programme Review, now scheduled for publication early in 2006. Nothing would do more to show the world that climate targets are both necessary and achievable. In the end, action will speak louder than words. Then, Tony Blair could claim the mantle of leadership on climate change once again.

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