Why Montreal matters

Camilla Toulmin
1 December 2005

The year 2005, which ends with the major conference of parties to the Kyoto protocol in Montreal, has been a rollercoaster for climate-change debate. Britain’s prime minister Tony Blair has played a key role: forewarning his G8 partners in late 2004 that it would be a key element of the summit agenda he was due to host in July 2005, and convening the Exeter meeting of scientists in February 2005. These scientists’ deliberations provided conclusive evidence for significant man-made warming of the Earth’s atmosphere and increased disruption of weather systems across the planet.

Blair promoted the twin issues of Africa and climate change to the head of the Gleneagles summit of the G8, ensuring a level of attention which many rightly lauded. Some of us might have wished for a greater connection between the two agendas – might Africa’s development possibly be adversely influenced by climate change – but hey, some attention is better than none. Thanks, Tony!

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, Tom Burke, John Ashton) and activists (Sophie Harding, Angel Green, Rubens Born).

A useful guide to the debate is by its editor, Caspar Henderson, here

More recently, openDemocracy writers assess climate-change-related issues in the approach to the Montreal summit:

Ian Christie, “When the levee breaks” (September 2005 )

Dáithí Stone & Dave Frame, “Hurricanes, global warming and global politics” (September 2005 )

Simon Retallack, “Tony Blair and climate change: a change of heart?” (November 2005 )

Anglo-American confusions

But climate change was always the junior sibling at the Gleneagles meeting, and in any case the family union was sadly further diminished by the bombings of 7 July which brought summit discussions to a temporary halt and broke whatever tenuous thread might have been spun from the different positions.

Three weeks later, on 28 July, the United States announced the Asia-Pacific Partnership for Clean Development and Climate, aimed at bringing China, Australia, India and others on board a technology-led programme over the next few years. With no mandatory limits on greenhouse-gas emissions, the pact allows the supporting countries to set individual goals for reducing emissions.

The initiative may not be in itself a bad thing if it is allied to a strong, serious commitment to cutting greenhouse gases; but it was curious nonetheless for the US to launch this so soon after Gleneagles, with no previous mention – taking even its British ally by surprise.

At the end of August, in the heart of the hurricane season, the winds gathered and the sea rose around New Orleans. Weakened by years of under-investment in sea dykes, and blanket development of the shoreline, the devastation wreaked by a force-five hurricane was terrible. Hurricane Katrina is likely to cost the US the equivalent of 1.7% of its GDP (and this may be a conservative estimate). Commentators are still tussling over whether the frequency or intensity of the hurricane season has been intensified by global warming.

The United Nations world summit on 14-16 September in New York offered another opportunity to highlight our common plight in the face of such threats, but the most vocal exponents of climate-change impacts on development were in the fringe events, rather than the plenary sessions.

Then, at Bill Clinton’s launch of the Clinton Global Initiative on 15-17 September, Tony Blair seems to have got his autocue muddled up with that of George W Bush: he found himself saying technology was a much better route than targets, maybe Kyoto was built on shaky foundations and we had better seek another route. Hoping to live down such a silly mistake, Blair has stuck with this line ever since, noting how people can be a bit frightened of targets, and worried about their impact on growth. It would have been better had he said “sorry” and got back on cue.

In the run-up to the Montreal conference (28 November-9 December) the gloves start to come off. The former United Kingdom chief scientist, Robert May argues in a valedictory speech to the Royal Society that climate change constitutes a real weapon of mass destruction, and one for which there is very serious long-term evidence from the best of global science.

Further armoury in favour of a big rethink of how we live together on earth is provided by Jonathan Porritt’s excellent new book, Capitalism As If the World Matters, published by Earthscan. Jonathan is also a key adviser of Tony Blair, former leader of the Green Party, and a contributor to openDemocracy, so is clearly no idle armchair pundit.

Meanwhile, scientists – many from US federal agencies – are coming up with more and more new evidence of how quickly sea surface temperatures are rising, ice shelves collapsing and glaciers melting – based on well-grounded, long-established data sets that brook no contest (see for example Stephan Harrison’s openDemocracy article, “Kazakhstan: glaciers and geopolitics”, May 2005).

A time for clarity

So what’s going on? What happened to the commitment to “evidence-based policy-making”? Why is it so hard to penetrate the thick shell of White House and Downing Street obduracy?

In the case of the current US administration, we may have to give up ever hoping for a flicker of intelligence on climate change. The pattern of interests based on oil and gas seems too closely knit into an armour-plated defence of US plc (or its most powerful parts). With Halliburton benefiting from clear-up operations in New Orleans, there may even be some nice synergies developing. At the same time, religious fundamentalists are quite prepared to embrace natural disasters – the bigger the better! – as proof of a sinful world and their own righteousness. This alliance of money and zealotry is very far from holy.

Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, Gordon Brown – the government’s finance minister and Blair’s likely successor – announced in July 2005 a new commission to investigate the economics of climate change, headed by Nick Stern who led the analysis for the Commission for Africa. It aims to pull together a disparate set of evidence on what climate change has and will cost different parts of the world, and estimates of ways to reduce greenhouse gases. The findings, due by autumn 2006, must somehow manage to tailor the mixed cloth of science, environmentalists, and concerned citizens into a compelling case for change in policy and metrics.

Tony Blair, whose country chairs the G8 and holds the presidency of the EU during 2005 – what a constellation of power and fortune! – has a rare opportunity to achieve the best of his legacy as the year ends. As he ponders life after Downing Street, the most valuable thing he can offer is straight talking and clear messages about the global challenges we collectively face, and firm recommendations for the practical steps to follow.

Also in openDemocracy, Jonathan Porritt “’As if the world matters’: reconciling sustainable development and capitalism”

Kyoto foundation, Montreal effect

Montreal starts the process of mapping out what follows the first commitment period of implementing the Kyoto protocol, a period that ends in 2012. Some people estimate that this negotiation may take five years to complete; others think this is far too long to wait. But none have time to waste: think about the many businesses and households making decisions all the time about investments which last way beyond the 2012 mark, the utilities and institutions needing clear, unambiguous targets to aim for.

Targets are essential. They will not dampen growth, but will rather spur innovation and technical inventiveness. The Bush proposition that technology and targets are incompatible could only be supported either by those with insufficient mental space for more than a single idea at a time, or those whose agenda is based less on scientific evidence than on political dogma.

Montreal matters because this is the first meeting of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol since it received the requisite number of ratifications, thanks to Russia signing up, allowing the protocol to come into force in February 2005. While some hope that Kyoto’s imperfections will allow it to be pronounced stillborn, many of us – while recognising its flaws – feel that a commitment to make the current set of proposals work well provides a better platform for further progress next time. The US government may wish the Kyoto protocol cold and dead, but we in Europe should be arguing strongly that it deserves to live and breathe. Kyoto provides the foundation on which future climate-change arrangements will need to be constructed.

Montreal also urgently must address the high and rising cost of adapting to climate change for poorer parts of the world. Small islands in the Pacific and Caribbean are finding it harder to get insurance – yet without insurance cover, their tourism industry will collapse and with it many millions of jobs and foreign earnings.

Camilla Toulmin is the director of the International Institute for Environment & Development (IIED), a policy-research NGO based in London.

Also by Camilla Toulmin in openDemocracy:

“Africa: why climate change matters” (May 2005)

“The G8 and climate change: a campaigners’ scorecard” (July 2005) – with Saleemul Huq

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Bangladesh is finding it hard to withstand both sea surges and rising floods from a Ganges river now swollen with melting glacier waters. Much of Africa, heavily dependent on rain-fed farming, faces ever more uncertain harvests, spilling young people into towns and cities with little to look forward to. So far, developing countries have been patient, willing to accept a few crumbs from the tables of the rich in compensation for these damaging impacts. A tighter global legal framework would recast these sums as meagre reparations for the scale of damage inflicted.

Over to you, Margaret

Thus, the British prime minister clearly finds himself in a bind – caught between two mutually incompatible positions. The great communicator tries to present two different cases in separate jurisdictions, hoping that the respective citizen-juries don’t talk to each other during the recess. But, unfortunately for him, they do. The mixed “targets, what targets?” message creates a welter of conflicting counterpoints until no one knows anymore what Blair might be thinking or planning to take forward from the Kyoto protocol.

In this miasma of Blairite confusion, it is left to Margaret Beckett – his trusty secretary of state for the unwieldy department of the environment, food and rural affairs – to make sense of what the British government’s position on climate change really is.

So, Margaret Beckett, if you’re finding it hard to get a clear message from Downing Street, please note and act on the following recommendations:

  • we need to support the Kyoto process, building on its considerable strengths such as the agreement on clear targets and associated carbon trading, while also seeking to strengthen the next commitment phase

  • we must acknowledge that poor countries are hardest hit by climate change yet have been least responsible for these damaging impacts. How can we best help people adapt to such changes?

  • we must start talking sense about the 2012 agenda. Tony Blair may be right that some people don’t like the idea of targets, but they all know we need them. It’s a question of how tight they need to be and who bears the greatest cost in adjustment.

We live on an extraordinary and wonderful planet. We are heirs to a glorious and diverse history that exemplifies the best and worst that human spirit and ingenuity can design. We have a duty of care, of stewardship, towards this priceless asset. There is only one earth. The sooner we get round to planning our common future, the better!

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