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17 May 2004

Kyoto prospects 2: America

By Geoffrey Lean

The Bush administration presents a hard face to the world on climate change. Yet, almost unnoticed on this side of the Atlantic, the US is undergoing seismic shifts of opinion. So important are these that some observers predict – contrary to all conventional wisdom – that next year the US could grapple seriously with the issue, whoever wins the 2004 presidential election.

Opinion polls now show consistently that 70-80 per cent of Americans regard global warming as a serious problem and want their country to take the lead in addressing it. The media, too, have overwhelmingly accepted the science – unlike in Britain, where many newspapers and commentators persist in denying it outright.

More surprisingly, even the industries most responsible for the pollution that causes climate change are increasingly ready for measures to control it. Electric power companies, which own nearly 40 per cent of America’s generating capacity, have endorsed legislation that would compulsorily limit their emissions of carbon dioxide. BPAmoco – which has saved $650m over three years by reducing its emissions – leads the firms that want change. ExxonMobil still leads the opposition, but its chief executive is due to retire this year.

All this is being translated into political action – often led by major Republicans. This month, Massachusetts has adopted aggressive measures to cut emissions of greenhouse gases, making Mitt Romney the third Republican governor of an important state (after George Pataki of New York and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California) to depart from the White House line. The states responsible for most of the US emissions – mainly in the Midwest and South – remain unmoved, but a dozen others have now either adopted such measures or promised to do so, creating a political momentum that is already affecting national politics.

Perhaps the greatest shift of all is in Congress. President Bush, and his cheerleaders in the British media, have made much of a 97-0 Senate vote in 1997 to oppose the Kyoto Protocol unless developing countries started taking their own action to combat climate change. But, with much less publicity, both houses of Congress have since unanimously passed resolutions calling on Bush to return to the negotiating table: the Senate has done so twice.

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Seven years ago, a top Clinton administration official told me that he could count on his fingers the number of senators who believed in global warming. But last year, 44 of the 100 senators supported big unilateral cuts in US emissions in a bill sponsored by John McCain, a rival of Bush’s for the Republican nomination in 2000, and Joe Lieberman, Al Gore’s running mate in the same year. McCain has sworn to go on introducing the bill until it passes, and some of its opponents – including Senator Robert C Byrd, leader of the coal-state Democrats and one of the sponsors of the much-cited 1997 vote – have indicated they may switch sides.

This is how change often happens in the US, where the federal system and the separation of powers can allow an unstoppable momentum gradually to build up despite the wishes of the White House. A similar movement in both political parties 15 years ago opposed Ronald Reagan’s long denial of the science of acid rain. It caused George Bush Sr to promise to be “the environment president” and to introduce legislation as soon as he was elected.

No one expects the US to adopt Kyoto as it now stands; rapid energy growth, especially during the Clinton years, makes it impossible for the US to make the required cuts. But the Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry – who is far greener than Al Gore ever was – would make ratifying a suitably adapted treaty, and cutting pollution at home, among his top priorities.

And such is the growing momentum that even a re-elected Bush might change his position, particularly if helped on his way by the man who could have the most influence of all on him – Tony Blair.

Geoffrey Lean is the Environment editor, Independent on Sunday