Posted by: John Elliott | March 20, 2008

Tony Blair joins Al Gore on climate change bandwagon

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair plans to build on what former U.S. Vice President Al Gore has achieved on climate change and pull governments together in a global deal. “Al Gore’s persuaded everyone that it’s a big problem and now we need to find a solution to it,” he told me in Delhi this evening, at the end of a six-day Asian tour launching an initiative called “Breaking The Climate Deadlock.”

Blair and Gore both recognize that there is deep skepticism in India, and in China, about the developed world’s intentions on climate change. These countries suspect, understandably, that western countries will try to force them to slow their economic growth while doing little themselves to stem emissions.

Al Gore was in Delhi a week ago – sounding much better briefed on detail than Blair’s broad political sweep. He dismissed the idea that “saving the environment slows growth.” Speaking at a conference organized by India Today, a news-weekly, he said that the U.S. had in the past given a world lead in rebuilding Germany and Japan after the Second World War; now it needed to do the same on climate change. But it needed to be able to tell its people “that India and China are doing something.” India should for example switch subsidies it gave coal to solar energy.

“The India position is understandable,” Blair told me after a day meeting political and business leaders in Delhi. “They say, ‘Yes it’s a big problem but don’t just tell us we can’t grow – if you tell us to stop growing, forget it.’ So we must give them a reasonable sense that the West is going to table an action plan.” That meant the developed nations taking action themselves, while also ensuring that developing countries accelerated the use of advanced technologies that could be transferred from the west.

This was the basis, he said, of the “global deal” he wants to construct around “common but differentiated obligations” that recognize the different imperatives and needs of rich and poor nations. He had pushed the same agenda in Japan, where he felt there was a growing awareness that action had to be taken.

Both Gore and Blair know that converting Indian politicians and business leaders must be a prime target because of India’s growing world importance – and because, currently, it has a sympathetic prime minister in Manmohan Singh. Both men met Singh, and today Blair also met Rahul Gandhi, the 38-year-old heir to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty who is being groomed to be a future prime minister. Gandhi was also no doubt sympathetic to what Blair was saying, but he has little chance of converting many Indian political leaders who, having escaped from British colonial rule just 61 years ago, are deeply distrustful of pressure groups from the west.

On his Asian tour, Blair has been launching his new initiative, “Breaking The Climate Deadlock,” that he will run alongside his role as an envoy to the Middle East. About six months ago, not long after finishing as British prime minister, he approached an organization called The Climate Group and asked if it would provide him a platform to develop his global deal. The group works internationally with government and business leaders to push climate change and encourage low carbon emissions. It has brought together a group of experts to try to work out the framework for Blair’s deal.

The Climate Group was formed in 2004 and is based in the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia. Its members include companies ranging from Goldman Sachs (GS), J.P.Morgan Chase (JPM), HSBC and AIG (AIG) to Bloomberg, Dow Chemical, Starbucks (SBUX) and Tesco. It includes the municipal authorities of New York City and Greater London, plus regional governments from America, Canada and Australia. It is working with the HSBC Climate Partnership, which has set up a $100 million fund to encourage action by individuals, businesses and governments.

It’s easy to be skeptical about former world leaders who latch onto big issues that give them a role with wide publicity, especially when they are as role-conscious as Blair, who thrives in the limelight. But Blair does have some track record on climate change, having forced it onto the world agenda at a G8 meeting in 2005. Now he needs to show he is not just riding a bandwagon – “until he becomes the European president,” as one cynic put it this evening.

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