Johannesburg: The Value of Hot Air

21 August 2002

Johannesburg: The Value of Hot Air

By Gwynne Dyer

It has been calculated that flying all 65,000 delegates to the ten-day World Summit on Environment and Development that opens in Johannesburg on 26 August will dump an extra half-million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — as much as one million Indians produce in a year. That is the single greatest absurdity about the world’s biggest-ever conference, but there are many more.

There is, for example, the timing of the conference, moved up from the first two weeks of September after last September’s tragic attacks in the United States in order to allow President George W. Bush to join 106 other heads of state at the closing ceremonies. But Bush, whose relations with the environmental movement are only slightly warmer than with Saddam Hussein, has decided not to come.

Criticising this shindig is like shooting fish in a barrel. Twenty different UN agencies are sending separate delegations to Johannesburg; no final agenda for the conference has been agreed despite any number of preparatory meetings; there will be one hundred and six ten-minute speeches by heads of state as the world’s biggest-ever anti-climax at the end of this grotesquely swollen event. Any halfway-competent journalist can write this sort of stuff in his sleep, and that’s just what some of the lazier ones among the 6,000-strong media contingent in Johannesburg will be doing.

What they do not understand is that almost all publicity is good publicity. Johannesburg is a stage from which people and organisation concerned about the environment can address a basically sympathetic global public, the hook for tens of thousands of environmental stories in the world’s mass media. And it was governments that arranged it.

Many officials in national governments and international organisations are there partly because they genuinely want to do some good (although the Law of Mixed Motives usually applies), and they know that their political masters, however well-intentioned, cannot move until the popular support is there. So there is a lot of political activity, especially on the international level, whose real purpose is not making treaties, but influencing public opinion.

Johannesburg is a case in point. The global public’s knowledge and concern about environmental matters has to be sustained by a variety of means (since relatively few people voluntarily take a great interest in the subject), and the tenth anniversary of the landmark Rio Earth Summit was too good an opportunity to miss.

There will be no bold new environmental initiatives at Johannesburg to compare with the Climate Change Convention and the Biodiversity Convention that were agreed at Rio ten years ago, mainly because things move very slowly when 174 countries are involved. It took five years to translate the climate change accord into specific and binding national targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions at Kyoto in 1997, and after five more years it’s still not clear whether the United States will be able to sabotage its ratification or not.

So beyond general consciousness-raising, the current state of play in international environmental politics means that the main short-term usefulness of the Johannesburg conference is to maintain popular support for the Kyoto accord in the face of US wrecking tactics. Although nobody connected with the conference would admit it in public, that comes down to influencing public opinion in a very few countries.

It is NOT about changing Mr Bush’s mind. His own Environmental Protection Agency quietly admitted on its website in June that global warming exists, that it is man-made, and that it will transform the environment, but he is loyal to his political allies, and no economically costly measures will be taken on his watch to avert the changes. As the report put it: “Adapting to a changing climate is inevitable. The question is whether we adapt poorly or well.”

All very well for Americans, but for Tuvalu (and later perhaps even for Bangladesh and the Netherlands) adapting well may require human beings to develop gills. Nevertheless, everybody else now takes it for granted that Washington will continue to oppose the Kyoto accord, and try to turn other countries against it, until at least 2004. But the game is still afoot.

Kyoto cannot come into effect until 55 countries have ratified it, including industrialised countries responsible for 55 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions of the industrial world as of 1990. Fifty-five countries have already ratified, but since the United States alone accounted for 36.1 percent of industrial countries’ emissions, almost every other developed country must ratify the accord in order to cross the threshold.

Most of them (the European Union countries and Japan, accounting for 35.2 percent of emissions) already have. Eastern European countries anxious to join the EU will certainly ratify Kyoto, and Russia, responsible for 17.4 percent of emissions, is also committed to doing so. But the total may still fall a crucial one or two percent short of the 55 percent threshold — which is why Canada and Australia, both close US allies with huge energy sectors, have become the critical players.

Just one of them ratifying the treaty would be enough to make Kyoto a reality, but the Australian government has already caved in to the local coal-exporting industry, and the Canadian government is looking distinctly wobbly. So though Johannesburg is about many other things as well, its principal contemporary real-world function is to focus Canadian public opinion on the need to rise above petty local concerns. And that, in 2002, is how the world actually works.

It could be a lot worse.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 9 and 10. (“There…come”; and “It is NOT…afoot”)