Cooling Blair’s Climate Crusade

Tony Blair is, in a way, as polarizing a figure in the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />United Kingdom as President George W. Bush is in the United States—with one crucial difference.  While President Bush has his Republican critics, he incurs nothing like the venomous hatred hurled at Blair from the left wing of his own Labor Party, a party he has led to successive landslide election victories. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

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Americans may be about to see why. Blair, having been the president's chief ally in Iraq, may soon become his chief antagonist over the issue of climate change—and his likely tactics will cause his supposed friends no end of pain.


The Labor left wing's disdain for Blair is based as much on style as on policy — a style of which Americans would be wise to be wary.


Blair's world view has been described as “messianic.”  After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, he became convinced that the world needed to change for the better, by force if necessary.  In an extraordinary and in many ways brilliant speech to his party conference in October 2001—which he wrote himself—the prime minister sang the virtues of liberal interventionism. He praised intervention in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, regretted inaction in Rwanda, and warned against letting crises in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe to go unabated. 


No objections or other considerations may interfere when Blair is in messianic mode.  Consider his support of President Bush's plans to liberate Iraq.  It was for Blair, quite simply, the right thing to do. But now reports from various government inquiries show that Blair's office ignored or overrode legitimate questions over the quality of the intelligence he was receiving. The prime minister, having convinced himself that Saddam Hussein not only possessed weapons of mass destruction, argued that Saddam was capable of launching them against British interests at a mere 45 minutes' notice.  It was on the basis of this questionable claim—that Saddam was an imminent threat, as opposed to the American contention that Saddam should be disarmed before he became an imminent threat—that the British Parliament backed the use of military force in Iraq.


Similar things have happened with Blair's domestic policies. The Blair government, convinced that the House of Lords was an unjustifiable anachronism, decided that the revered old institution had to go. The government ignored the peers' principled objections, and only a last-minute compromise kept 1,000 years' worth of history and tradition from being swept away. Recently, Blair decided to ban foxhunting as uncivilized, despite the almost unanimous opposition from country dwellers that led to the largest anti-government demonstration in British history.


The latest target of the prime minister's messianic gaze is climate change.  He has been convinced by his chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, a chemist by training, that global warming is the greatest long-term danger facing the planet. Blair has announced that, along with Africa, global warming will be the focus of Britain's presiding roles over the Group of Eight (G8) and European Union this year. As with the Iraqi intelligence, the Blair government has ignored troublesome but legitimate questions in making this decision.


During his visit to Washington this week, the prime minister will likely strongly pressure the president to acknowledge the supposed problem of global warming and to commit America to do something about it beyond current policies. He has already committed Britain to reducing greenhouse gas emissions well below the targets demanded by the Kyoto Protocol, despite the fact that independent experts say his vision of a hydrogen economy will require covering an area the size of Wales in wind turbines. What he will demand of America is anyone's guess; in his recent speech, he stopped short of calling on the United States to ratify Kyoto, but Russia's politically motivated ratification of the treaty may breathe new life into that futile process.


Blair will certainly pitch this in moral terms, deploying the sermonizing style that led satirical magazine Private Eye to portray him as a busybody Anglican priest. Blair probably won't refer directly to Americans' sinful love of “unhealthy” fast food and gas-guzzling SUVs, but he will likely seek to make Americans feel guilty for consuming a quarter of the world's resources while having such a small fraction of the world's population (an argument his close Parliamentary ally Stephen Byers uses frequently).


Such moral hectoring must be met with moral arguments. When Blair asks America to restrict its greenhouse gas emissions, American policy makers should respond that he is calling for more unemployment, higher heating prices for the elderly and reduced aid to developing countries—and that he is calling for all of this on the basis of projections that have little basis in reality.  In the run up to the Iraq war, Blair's anti-war critics accused his government of “sexing up” its findings on Iraq to increase their impact—a criticism that seems even more apt to describe Sir David King's alarmist pronouncements that global warming is worse than terrorism.


While recognizing the immense value of Tony Blair's support in the war on terror, the newly re-elected Bush administration should respond resolutely to any attempts to get the United States to change course on climate policy. This will require a firm diplomatic hand and a steadfast refusal to compromise settled policy. In short, the administration should act just like Blair in rebuffing his global warming entreaties.