The G8 and climate change: a campaigners’ scorecard

Camilla Toulmin Saleemul Huq Stephan Harrison Mayer Hillman Aubrey Meyer Tom Burke
12 July 2005

  • Tom Burke
  • Mayer Hillman
  • Camilla Toulmin & Saleemul Huq
  • Stephan Harrison
  • Aubrey Meyer
  • Tom Burke, Third Generation Environmentalism (E3G)

    Beyond the text

    Labouring mightily to produce textual mice is an inevitable feature of the increasingly bizarre, and expensive, circus that the G8 has become. Britain’s Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was far-sighted and courageous in setting climate change as one of the principal goals for his presidency of it. There was always a risk of failure and the intervention of the London bombers prevented the nature of that failure from becoming more apparent.

    Blair’s primary goal was to get the United States administration to accept the strength of scientific opinion that now calls with increasing urgency for action on climate change. Many of those who have parsed the text of the communiqué have already pointed out that President Bush went no further than he has gone before. Indeed, parts of the document repeat almost word for word some of his (rare) comments on the subject.

    Some have damned the Gleneagles document because it contains no new targets and timetables; others have, in a fit of ill-informed enthusiasm, praised it as the most important text on climate change since the Kyoto Protocol. Neither are right. Like the priest he often resembles, Tony Blair’s efforts have resulted in the proverbial curate’s egg.

    The G8 is a political process, not a policy negotiation. It was never going to discuss, let alone agree on, new emissions targets and timetables. Those discussions, to be meaningful, must take place inside a properly constructed and legitimate multilateral forum.

    openDemocracy’s debate on the politics of climate change includes contributions from Timothy E Wirth, David King, Carol Turley, Andrew Simms, and William Shakespeare

    Plus: Tom Burke & John Ashton, “Climate change and global security”

    The point of the G8 is to release a political momentum that accelerates the work going on in the huge array of public, private, local, national and international bodies that must align their efforts if the world is to keep a stable climate. That is why the failure to get anything more than cosmetic acceptance from the Bush administration matters so much. Away from the headlines, the US will go on, as it has done for the past four and a half years, taking every conceivable opportunity to deny, delay and derail international action on climate change.

    Tony Blair’s efforts over the past nine months achieved much. Awareness of the importance and urgency of the issue has grown considerably among other country’s political leaderships, in business and finance, the media and the wider public. The weight of scientific evidence on the scale and imminence of the threat is now much more widely accepted. There is an emerging programme of useful, albeit hardly energetic, cooperative international work on climate issues.

    But paradoxically, the G8’s most useful outcome is the exact opposite of what the British prime minister intended. Gleneagles has shone a radiant light on the US president’s obdurate isolation on climate change. His position now commands diminishing support at home and none abroad. Nothing in George W Bush’s past performance suggests that this will bother him one iota.

    This serves to clarify the task ahead. During Britain’s European Union presidency until December 2005, Blair must focus beyond the text on what we can do with the rest of the world, especially China and India, to invest real money in climate stability.

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    Mayer Hillman , Policy Studies Institute

    A failure of imagination

    The G8 communiqué on climate change at the end of the Gleneagles summit can be commended for reaching a long-awaited consensus: human beings are contributing to climate change, and must therefore reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Also welcome was its recognition of the United Nations as the international body that must take the lead on negotiations to lock world populations into a failsafe framework to ensure that raising material standards are not allowed seriously to diminish the future quality of life on this, hitherto ecologically-balanced, planet.

    Mayer Hillman’s latest book (with Tina Fawcett) is How We Can Save The Planet (Penguin 2004)

    Yet the only realistic response to the communiqué can be one of dismay in seeing world leaders failing to deliver what its citizens have a right to expect of them. This failure is apparent in three respects.

    First, the communiqué acknowledges the need “to act with resolve and urgency” to reduce greenhouse gases. But the absolute commitment to achieve the science-based and measurable reductions which will spare the planet – and especially people living in the global south – from the ravages of climate change, is absent.

    Second, the communiqué calls for a wider dialogue, but does not challenge the fallacious assumption that necessary reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions can be achieved without the need for significant behavioural changes. Such changes are an essential complement to a climate-change programme – a clean energy path for sustainable development, more efficient use of energy, and more investment in research and development technology.

    In this respect, one of the most revealing aspects of the summit week was the failure to make critical connections. The intense media and political concern with climate change was accompanied by the hullabaloo surrounding the 2012 Olympics competition – but the ecological, carbon-extravagant consequences of long-distance flights by tens of thousands of spectators and participants was ignored. Such collective amnesia about air travel is symptomatic of the failure of imagination among the G8, its leading politicians, and the current structures of global governance.

    Third, the communiqué’s call for partnership with the major emerging economies is reasonable. But that partnership can only have a realistic prospect of success if it forms part of a world solution – namely, the Global Commons Institute’s Contraction & Convergence framework, involving negotiations towards equal per capita emissions of greenhouse gases.

    For all its fine words, the G8 is stuck in a cross-fingered and ill-informed approach to climate change. It is time to end the myth that voluntary action based on better education, energy saving, and new technologies will achieve the dramatic greenhouse-gas reductions required. World leaders must take the lead. Only urgent action on their part, far more ambitious and visionary than reflected in the final Gleneagles communiqué, will prevent them handing over a dying planet to the next generation.

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    Camilla Toulmin & Saleemul Huq, International Institute of Environment and Development

    Dazed and confused

    Many campaigners welcomed the G8’s decision on aid and debt relief to African states, but had no progress to celebrate on the climate change agenda. They might have preferred a statement revealing the split on the issue between the United States and everyone else. But traditionally, the G8 seeks a consensus in its final communiqué – and this was achieved by (perhaps) exchanging US agreement on Africa for a bland conclusion on climate.

    Yet the Africa and climate change agendas are deeply connected. Increased aid flows may bring relief for African government budgets needing cover for health, education, water supplies, and road-building, but such investments will be threatened by a failure to address the threats to livelihood systems in the continent.

    Africa is particularly vulnerable to climate change, because of its location in the tropics, its reliance on rain-fed farming, its weak physical and institutional infrastructure, and its poverty. Its huge landmass means that increases in temperature in the heart of the continent may well be double those experienced at a global level. So even if global warming can be kept to 2 degrees Centigrade on average over the next century, this may still entail 4 degrees to inland Africa.

    Many NGOs have highlighted African poverty issues, but few have focused on Africa and climate change. The NGO Working Group on Development and Climate Change, consisting of eighteen leading international NGOs in the development and environmental arenas, has focused on the linkage between climate change and Africa’s development. It produced a publication called Africa Up in Smoke? which pointed out that all the progress on aid and debt relief would be of little use if the climate change problem was not also tackled at the same time.

    The group organised a event in Edinburgh on the eve of the G8 summit, GW8 (Global Warming Eight); there, eight individuals (farmers, NGO workers, priests) from vulnerable developing countries (Tanzania, Zambia, Kenya, Mozambique, Honduras, Columbia, Philippines and India) spoke eloquently about the ravages of climatic impacts they are facing in their respective countries.

    Two cheers, then, to the G8 for doubling aid to Africa. But there is a curious dissonance between this help and more problematic areas like climate change and trade. The rich countries seem ready to pay out money in aid and debt relief because this is relatively easy; such programmes allow these countries to maintain an image of themselves as generous, responsible, forgiving.

    Much harder are the significant changes to lifestyles needed if there is to be progress on trade and climate change issues. Most western governments see the interests of their farmers, industries, and consumers as too important to negotiate away, and argue that technical fixes will get us through climate change, so we don’t need to “sacrifice” growth.

    Both trade and climate change demand far-reaching changes in the west, whose recognise that its current patterns of living damage the planet’s weather patterns and ecosystems. The rich countries are far from responsible, generous and wise when they continue to ignore the adverse impacts of their agricultural and export subsidies on southern livelihoods.

    The United Kingdom holds the European Union presidency from July-December 2005. EU member-states share much in common in their understanding of climate change, and accept the evidence of world-class scientists and their academies. The Montreal review conference in September will be a great opportunity to plan for the period after the first Kyoto Protocol target date of 2012, and to discuss how poor countries can best adapt to climate change. Britain and the European Union can play a key leadership role at such events.

    In the United States too, there are signs of progress. Many cities, states, citizen groups, politicians and corporations are now acknowledging the need to move forward, leaving the Bush administration to its dogmas. Soon, with luck, Bush and his oil buddies will be history.

    My teenage kids read a music and fashion magazine called Dazed and Confused which focuses this month on climate change. Hip youngsters get the point and understand why this matters for them, as well they might. They will be living with the consequences of their elders’ timid shortsightedness in addressing climate change. Maybe we should send a copy of Dazed and Confused to the G8 leaders’ residences!

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    Stephan Harrison, Oxford University

    Will big business save the day?

    In the context of accumulating scientific evidence of the effects, causes and implications of climate change, the G8 summit on 6-8 July 2005 must be seen as a wasted opportunity. The politicians managed successfully to split the debate so that poverty in Africa and the threat of climate change were considered separately, despite the increasing recognition that the two are entwined.

    Similarly, the global Live8 concerts at no time made the link between the two, even though research shows that climate change is leading to drought which has already devastated crops throughout large parts of the developing world.

    openDemocracy’s two-month debate on the politics of climate change – presented to Tony Blair’s residence on the eve of the G8 – featured articles and essays from Ian McEwan, Bill McKibben, Benito Müller, Angela Saini, Chris Mooney, Camilla Toulmin, and many others

    A good overview is debate editor Caspar Henderson’s “cyberwalk”, “The politics of climate change: a debate guide”

    The latest studies combine the outputs of “general circulation models” with an understanding of sand-dune activity. They show that deserts in southern Africa are likely to be much more active during the rest of the 21st century, leading to loss of agricultural land in already marginal regions.

    The G8 managed to defer real progress on the issue by embedding the solutions into putative future technological advances. Increasingly, however, the science is showing that the climate sensitivity of the atmosphere is perhaps higher than was originally thought, and that the reaction of terrestrial and oceanic systems to climate change is likely to be non-linear, sudden and irreversible on societal timescales.

    Waiting for technological solutions to the problem, rather than restricting the emissions which are forcing the climate to new extremes, means that we will be increasingly committed to significant warming during this century, and we don’t know how ecological and climate systems will respond to this.

    Whilst politicians (and entertainers) have failed to show a lead, real progress may come from an unlikely quarter. Big business and the insurance industry have recognised that climate change is likely to affect not just the physical environment in which companies operate, but also the social and political context within which decisions are made.

    There are clear signs that due diligence processes are going to have to take climate risks into account and the corporate world is becoming aware of this. Once there is recognition that there are very significant commercial risks in neglecting climate change, and opportunities to help alleviate its effects, it may be that business will force the politicians to act.

    The left has often complained that big business has more power than the nation-state; it would be ironic if big business were to save the day.

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    Aubrey Meyer, Global Commons Institute

    The United States wins (and contract & convergence too)

    The G8 acknowledged by consensus for the first time that there is a problem of human-induced climate change. Not a great advance, as much effort was wasted on the staged poker-game of overcoming the “tactical” US denial of the problem.

    However, the United States administration finally won the argument it has been making for many years: there is a global problem that requires a global solution, and the Kyoto Protocol is outdated because it excludes developing countries.

    Anticipating this, member companies of the World Economic Forum (WEF) wrote collectively to G8 governments before the meeting in Gleneagles. Their letter instructed governments to create the inclusive framework necessary to achieve safe and stable greenhouse-gas concentration in the global atmosphere, so they in turn could do their job.

    This is the point addressed by the contraction and convergence (C&C;) model. To reconcile this with the suggested G8 “action plan” for global ecological recovery would require two things: that we solve the problem faster than we create it, and introduce a C&C; framework agreement to steer the solution through. On 12 July, the Royal Charter Institutions of the UK’s building and engineering industry wrote to Tony Blair applauding the WEF leaders and presenting C&C; as their framework of choice – science-based, globally fair, and effective.

    The G8 member governments consider that the United Nations is the appropriate forum for negotiation, and have already returned the issue to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). A remedy is at hand: the UNFCCC has already said that "achieving the objective of the climate treaty inevitably requires Contraction and Convergence."

    To put it another way, this means the future will by definition be a framework-based market rather than a market-based framework; as if God (as Albert Einstein said) does indeed play dice, but only having first designed them.

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    Further Links:

    Global Commons Institute (GCI)

    International Institute for Environment and Development

    Third Generation Environmentalism

    Policy Studies Institute

    G8 UK Government website

    The politics of climate change

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