When the historians of the future come to apportion blame for the world’s disastrous failure to avert global warming, they will doubtless reserve a special place in the dock for the Greens, whose perversity and inflexibility have done much to make climate change inevitable. As ministers from around the world gather in Bonn this month for a last-ditch attempt to save the Kyoto Protocol, they can justly reflect that, but for the Greens, they would instead be starting to put it into force.
The Greens are not the only villains: George W Bush merits pride of place for doing all he can to kill the treaty. The multinational companies from the dirtier end of the fossil fuel industry, at whose bidding the new president appears to act, are close behind. And the historians should reserve a brickbat for the politically correct Dutch, who chaired – and bungled – the last negotiations, just over seven months ago, in The Hague. Yet none of this would have mattered but for the Greens. Bush would not be president, and the meeting in The Hague – soberly billed by one senior British delegate as “the most important conference in the history of the world” – would not have failed.
First up is Ralph Nader, the Green candidate in last year’s US presidential elections. He took more than two million votes nationally, mainly from the Democrats, and more than 97,000 in Florida – by far surpassing Bush’s dubious margin of victory. Nader’s defence was that Bush and Al Gore were as bad as each other on the environment. There is indeed some justice in calling the Democrat an “environmental poseur”, but a President Gore would never have sabotaged Kyoto, let alone the 20 other environmental initiatives – from banning dangerous levels of arsenic in drinking water to screening school meals for salmonella – that Bush set out to delay or destroy in his first four months in office. Nader’s presidential bid seems to have owed more to ego politics than eco-politics. He raised important issues, including the death penalty and the privatisation of prisons, but did not make much of global warming. And as environmentalists have begun to fight back against the Bush administration, he has been elusive.
The second group of culprits, a clutch of European Green environment ministers, delivered the coup de grace in The Hague. They ensured that negotiations where everyone wanted to reach agreement in fact ended in breakdown. Certainly, poor chairmanship meant that the talks went to the wire without getting anywhere near a deal. But, in the early hours of the final morning, a late proposal, led by John Prescott and Michael Meacher, wrested far greater concessions than expected from a US delegation anxious to reach closure before President Clinton left office.
The British took care to include all shades of European opinion – including a top aide to Dominique Voynet, the French environment minister – in the negotiating team that reached the deal. They brought the proposal back to a meeting of EU environment ministers, half of whom were Greens. Led by Voynet, the head of France’s Green Party, and backed by some equally (if lower-case) green Scandinavian ministers, they rejected it. The Americans gave more ground, until the gap between the two sides amounted to just 0.25 per cent of the entire world’s combined emissions of carbon dioxide. But still the Greens would not agree. Voynet said afterwards that she would have been criticised if she had “sold off” her principles.
In the following weeks, the same pattern ruined an attempt – jointly initiated by Tony Blair and the French president, Jacques Chirac – to rescue the negotiations. Although the US position hardened as it became clear that there would be a Bush presidency, it was again primarily the Greens who refused to deal. This illustrates an interesting and destructive dynamic. When Greens are brought in to European coalition governments, they are naturally given the environment portfolio. They usually have little power at home, but gain influence on the international stage. There, they tend to hunt as a pack, showing more loyalty to their fellow Green ministers than to the governments to which they belong.
In recent weeks, the other industrialised countries have been edging towards a resolve to carry on with Kyoto even without the US, in the hope that it will join later. This may yet happen. But, on past performance, it would stand a better chance without the Greens, and their propensity to put their principles before the planet.