Biggest polluters come together to protect their interests

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Six Asia-Pacific countries –” the US, China, India, Australia, Japan and South Korea –” held a conference, the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, in Sydney (Australia) on January 11. It was their reaction to the conference held in Montreal in December by the signatories of the original Kyoto Protocols in order to renew and extend those Protocols. But the world’s six most environment-polluting countries, led by the US, have chosen to reject the remedies set out in the Kyoto Protocols, instead offering other, clearly dubious solutions, obviously motivated mainly by greed, selfishness and considerations of electoral politics.

The peril to the world’s ecosystems (and therefore to humanity) from global warming (caused mainly by the enormous and sudden increase in the amounts of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere) is real and serious, as environmental scientists have clearly demonstrated in recent reports on the issue, and the Kyoto Protocol agreed in December can be seen as an essential, though only partial, response to the danger. But these six countries, led by the US, have set out their own solutions, which can be summarised as "leave it to the manufacturers and businesses that cause the pollution and to modern technology to solve the problem."

These six countries account for almost half of global business and industry, and hence for most of the pollution. It is not, therefore, surprising that they object to the Kyoto Protocol, which imposes limits on the emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants that developed countries produce, and which harm our physical environment. Samuel Bodman, the US energy secretary, claimed at the conference that coal, gas and energy companies are capable of reducing these harmful emissions: "The people who run these companies –” they do have children, they do have grandchildren –” they do live and breathe in the world."

The assertion that those responsible for the companies’ producing the emissions are just as interested in having a clean environment as the rest of us was strongly rejected by green activists, who dismissed the Sydney conference as a gimmick and a transparent attempt to conceal their real reasons for rejecting the Kyoto Protocol. In particular they cited Australia and the US as being keen to divert attention from their refusal to sign Kyoto. According to the Australian Conservation Foundation, the conference "will fail unless it puts into place regulations and strong financial incentives for the industry to spend billions and billions of dollars on clean energy today."

At Sydney, representatives of the six made no attempt to deny that there is a clear need for action to address the problem of climate change, but the remedies they were proposing –” such as the use of modern technology –” look as if they were designed to prevent any swift action from being taken. But there is a consensus among environmental scientists that remedial action is due, with some asserting that it may already be too late to halt climate change, let alone reverse the changes that are already taking place. Caused mainly by the large-scale emissions of industrial gases such as carbon dioxide, global warming is almost certainly the greatest threat mankind has ever faced, as it will make the earth less habitable, they argue. In the not too distant future, soaring temperatures will ruin agriculture; water supplies for billions of people are likely to fail; and rising sea-levels will swamp low-lying coastal areas in many countries.

Professor James Lovelock, an eminent environmental scientist, for instance, has argued recently that it is too late to save the earth. In a report published in the British daily Independent, he made the gloomiest forecast ever of the disasters facing the world as a result of global warming. "Before this century is over, billions of us will die, and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic, where the climate remains tolerable," he wrote. According to Michael McCarthy, the environmental editor of the Independent, this highly respected scientist knew that he was "going out on a limb", but has every confidence in his analysis. This confidence is shared by Jonathan Porritt, the green guru, who commented: "If there was one scientist you would listen to… it would be Jim [Lovelock]."

Other environmental specialists and scientists mainly back Professor Lovelock’s analysis that urgent action is necessary, but disagree that such action is too late for an already-doomed earth. Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth has commented that "there is still a window of opportunity and we must make the most of it." Stephen Tindale, the director of Greenpeace, equally believes that there is still time for action to be taken to resolve the problem. "If governments take action climate change can still be controlled," he said.

But will governments take swift action just because environment scientists and specialists all agree that the time has come to take urgent action? The immediate answer is that they will not, especially if they are in the main polluting countries, where politicians neither accept that such action is necessary, nor believe that such action will get them votes, though it will certainly antagonise the businessmen and industrial magnates who fund their political parties and electioneering campaigns. The political will to act is certainly not there, and the public protests organised so far have not been strong enough to generate the level of pressure necessary to force the politicians’ hands.

The US government, led by the Bush administration, says that encouraging the development of more modern technology will take care of the problem and make the intervention of governments unnecessary. The irony is that both it and the evangelical Christian groups that support it are hostile to science and scientists. Far from using science to control pollution, the Bush administration is accused of "polluting science". A new book, The Republican War on Science, by Chris Mooney, actually uses these very words.

The sad truth is that the polluters will get away with their dangerous game, at least for the time being, because of the low level of popular anger not only in the developed but also the developing world. High oil prices have in fact driven China and India to turn to coal for the energy they need for their growing industries. The environmentalists who object that coal is an even bigger generator of the very emissions causing the climate change that must be halted are being ignored, to the peril of us all.

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