Fate of the World; Tony Blair's Goal for the G8 Summit: Get George Bush to Fess Up

Newsweek International, July 11, 2005 | Go to article overview

Fate of the World; Tony Blair's Goal for the G8 Summit: Get George Bush to Fess Up


Byline: Fred Guterl and William Underhill

Tony Blair inhabits a dangerous world. According to the British prime minister's trusted advisers, the planet is heating up fast. Temperatures in the northern hemisphere are rising more rapidly than at any time in the last thousand years. Hundreds of millions of people are at increased risk from flooding as sea levels rise. Changing weather patterns will exact a "heavy human and economic" cost. And mankind is, to "a greater or lesser extent," to blame.

George W. Bush is more fortunate. His world is much rosier. His advisers do not agree that global warming is underway and do not think that urgent action is called for, according to a leaked draft of the communique for the upcoming G8 summit. The Bushies went through the document and bracketed each point they took issue with. "Anything of any possible significance was between square brackets," says Tony Grayling, head of the sustainability program at the Institute for Public Policy Research, a London-based think tank. The White House hasn't commented.

Blair's stated goals for the Gleneagles, Scotland, gathering seem modest enough. He wants to gain wider acceptance for the prevailing scientific view on global warming and to promote technology-led solutions. All that's required of the Americans--the world's largest producers of greenhouse gases--is to admit that the problem exists. "The centerpiece to Blair's jigsaw is to get an explicit agreement on climate change and that it's man-made," says Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth. "Everything else flows from that." Despite these low expectations, Blair is likely to be disappointed.

Critics see no great mystery behind Bush's reluctance to believe what the vast majority of climate scientists tell him. "Bush is in a phone box with the chief of ExxonMobil as the last of the non-believers," says Norman Baker, environment spokesman for Britain's Liberal Democrats. Nor is Blair's concern for the environment a matter of pure principle: during his re-election bid, he made little reference to the kind of tough, vote-losing measures needed to combat global warming. Nevertheless, the White House and Downing Street seem to be playing out two sides of an argument that's been raging for a century or more, between technology optimists and environmental pessimists.

The differences between these two camps go beyond the narrow considerations of politics. They represent two fundamentally different world views. Technology optimists tend to have faith that whatever the problems, endlessly clever inventors will solve them. They look at history and see a pattern of doomsaying, followed by technological advancement that surpasses all expectations. For instance, Malthus's forecast that population growth would overtake food production and lead to worldwide poverty never came to pass; instead the green revolution made food abundant and cheap. The oil shortages of the 1970s, despite warnings to the contrary, gave way to a boom in oil exploration and decades of cheap energy. The question is whether technology will continue to bail us out.

Venture capitalists Peter Huber and Steven Mills think it will. And in their book "The Bottomless Well," released in February, they argue that top-down treaties like Kyoto work against this process. In the 1970s, the U.S. government began promoting fluorescent light bulbs as a preferred energy-efficient alternative to the incandescent bulb. A few years later the light-emitting diode, a more efficient byproduct of the computer chip, had made the question moot. Since it's impossible to predict where innovation will create efficiencies, government policies aiming to do so will usually bet on the wrong horse. …

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