Heated exchanges

  • 30/12/1997

Heated exchanges for the Kyoto municipality, it was going to be a big event. Though its finances were in a bad shape, the people of this ancient capital of Japan had agreed to host an international conference on combating what appears to be the world's biggest environmental threat. A Kyoto protocol on global warming would earn the city a place in the history of the 21st century with this treaty becoming the bedrock of internatio-nal environmental co-operation in the next millennium.

The widely publicised squabbling between the world's governments, however, left many Kyoto inhabitants disappointed. One resident of the city left his traditional Japanese courtesy behind to proclaim on local television that the effort had not been worth the cost.

But it is only to a rank outsider that the vexatious problem of global warming can look simple. It has layers and layers of complexity and contending interests.To understand it, we first have to think of a highly interconnected global system, in this case, the world's atmosphere. A cow in the Netherlands can add methane to the world's atmosphere. And a slum dweller in Calcutta can burn coal and add carbon dioxide. Nature is so efficient that it will distribute these emissions across the world. It absorbs some of these emissions but, given the enormous amount of emissions generated by human activities today, a lot simply accumulates in the atmosphere and is slowly overheating the Earth's outer airy layer. The prospects are frightening. The polar ice can melt and drown large areas of the world. Storms can increase. Droughts can become more common and innumerable plants can disappear. Diseases like malaria can grow in intensity.

As a result, there is a strong rationale for doing something about the problem here and now. But superimpose on this unitary ecological system the politics of a divided and diverse human society.

Firstly, there are major transatlantic differences. In the us politicians are not as concerned about global warming as are European politicians. The public in Germany and Denmark, for instance, feels much more stron-gly about environmental issues as compared to the public in usa and Canada. The Europeans, therefore, want stronger action than the Americans.

Secondly, there are North-South differences. Leaders of poor nations argue that as most of the carbon dioxide and methane that has accumulated in the atmosphere has come from industrialised nations since their Industrial Revo-lution began, they should take action first, and strong action for that matter, and thus provide leadership for the whole world. But leaders of the rich nations argue back that while the industrialised nations may have created the problem in the past and are still creating it in the present, it is the South which will add to the problem in the future as it begins to ape the West in industrial development. And, therefore, the South must join the action here and now otherwise the unilateral action of the North will do nothing to avert future disaster.

Finally, there are domestic political differences that aggravate the international political differences. As usa is the world's most powerful nation, its domestic politics has the biggest influence on international politics. When it comes to environmental issues, Western leaders usually walk a tight rope between the highly vocal and influential environmental lobby, on one hand, and the extremely powerful industrial lobby on the other. In the us , the balance tends to tilt more towards the industrial lobby and, in Europe, the environmental lobby sometimes gets more attention.

Put all these differences into a global melting pot and what are you likely to get ? Precisely the farce of a face-off that the people of Kyoto saw in the first 10 days of December 1997. At one level, highly moral and human arguments like "lets all get together and save the planet" and, at another level, extreme murkiness, divisiveness and self-interest.

In Kyoto, it was planetary politics that took an upper hand over planetary ecology. And not surprisingly.

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