As the talks on a new climate change treaty to replace the Kyoto accord reached a crisis point in Bali last month, the United States representatives were actually booed by the delegates of more than 180 other countries. The Bush administration’s dogged refusal to accept any binding targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the main cause of global warming, had simply exhausted everybody else’s patience.
Now, as Bush convenes his alternative to Kyoto gathering in Hawaii this week, a new survey by global consulting firm Accenture further demolishes Bush's insistence that global warming is best addressed through voluntary measures undertaken by business. Nearly nine in 10 corporations do not rate it as a priority, says the study, which canvassed more than 500 businesses in Britain, the US, Germany, Japan, India and China. Nearly twice as many see climate change as imposing costs on their business as those who believe it presents an opportunity to make money. And the report's publishers believe that big business will concentrate even less on climate change as the world economy deteriorates.
Four out of the five companies surveyed wanting governments to take a central role in tackling climate change. The survey found that only 5% of the companies questioned – and not one in China – regarded global warming as their top priority. And only 11% put it in second or third place. Overall, it ranked eighth in business leaders' concerns, below increasing sales, reducing costs, developing new products and services, competing for talented staff, securing growth in emerging markets, innovation and technology. Although most are taking limited action to reduce their own emissions, almost one in five had done nothing.
And there’s no hint of salvation in the US presidential election later this year. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, the three serious contenders for the Democratic nomination, are all pledged to cut US emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by the year 2050, and all three accept that this can only be achieved by legal caps on emissions. The leading Republican candidate, John McCain, makes the same promises, except that he is only aiming for 65% cuts by 2050.
But just like Bush, all of the candidates are ruled by corporate interests and none has agreed to sign up to any climate change treaty that does not require the rapidly developing countries, above all China and India, to accept specific obligations too – the main excuse for inaction.
With no sign of serious action by business or government, Nathan S. Lewis, Professor of Chemistry at California’s Institute of Technology puts things into perspective in a recent paper Powering the Planet saying: “In the United States, we spend $28 billion on health, but only about $28 million on basic solar research. Currently, we spend more money buying gas at the pump in one hour than we spend funding basic solar research in our country over an entire year. Yet, in that same hour, more energy from the sun is hitting the Earth than all of the energy consumed on our planet in that year. The same cannot be said of any other energy source. On the other hand, we need to explore all credible energy options that we believe could work at scale because we do not know which ones will work yet.”
With the US government pointing at business and business pointing at government, it must be clear that the rest of us urgently have to take matters into our own hands if the destructive impact of profit-motivated production is to be halted.
Gerry Gold, economics editor