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Hot Air!

United Kingdom
United States
Aotearoa/New Zealand

new internationalist
issue 206 - April 1990

Hot air!
In the last two years global warming has become a concern of politicians the world over. Countless international conferences have been held and governments everywhere acknowledge the gravity of the problem. Yet few have done anything concrete. In fact their policies often still encourage greenhouse gas emissions. Here we set the rhetoric against the reality.

George Bush


'Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect forget about the "White House effect"; as President I intend to do something about it ... We will talk about global warming... and we will act.'

- Presidential candidate George Bush, August 1988

'We should not wait for all scientific uncertainties to be cleared up before action takes place. whatever global solutions to global climate change are considered, they should be as specific and cost-effective as they can possibly be.'

- Secretary of State, James Baker, January 1989

In March 1989 President Bush called for an international phase-out of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) by the year 2000.


[image, unknown] The Bush administration has been one of the main impediments to progress in international talks on climate change. Since August 1988 President Bush has announced no less than four times that the US would hold a presidential conference on global warming. There is still no sign of it.

[image, unknown] At the November 1989 global-warming conference in the Netherlands US delegates helped torpedo the final statement so no firm commitments to stabilizing or reducing greenhouse gases were included. Officials cited the need for more research on the problem and the economic consequence of cutting back on carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions.

[image, unknown] More recently greenhouse naysayers seem to be gaining credibility with the White House due to a sceptical report by the George C Marshall Institute, a conservative Washington think-tank. On CFCs the Bush administration has neither proposed legislation requiring a total ban by the turn of the century nor backed proposals to accelerate CFC phase-out beyond the 50 per cent reduction required by the 1985 Montreal Protocol.


Geoffrey Palmer


'This shows how inept it is for us to work in the international arena to encourage other countries to help halt the depletion of the ozone layer. We must get our own house in order first.'

'In the long term, sustainable development is the only way to live within our means without destroying the environment which gives us life... The greenhouse effect and ozone depletion are two symptoms of the deeper malaise which we must learn to cure. And we need strong medicine.'

'Emissions from petrol-driven vehicles are a major contributor to the greenhouse effect. It is vital for the health of the environment that people be awakened to the benefits of alternative fuels.'

- all quotes Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, June and July 1989


[image, unknown] Government subsidies for the installation and use of alternative fuels (natural gas and propane which emit 30% less C02) have been removed.

[image, unknown] Rail branch lines have been closed, stations shut down and passenger services reduced. Subsidies for public transport in urban areas have also been slashed.

[image, unknown] The Ministry of Energy is being dissolved with some functions transferred to the Ministry of Commerce. Parts of the natural-gas industry have been sold to the private sector and the state-owned Coal Corporation is also for sale. Increased energy use is being promoted.


Margaret Thatcher


'It is possible that with all these enormous changes (population, agriculture, use of fossil fuels) concentrated into such a short period of time, we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of the planet itself.'

'We will work to cut down the use of fossil fuels, a cause of both acid rain and the greenhouse effect.'

'No issue will be more contentious than the need to control emissions of carbon dioxide... We can't just do nothing... Each country has to contribute, and those countries who are industrialized must contribute more than those who are not.'

- all quotes Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher:
September 1988; October 1988; November 1989


[image, unknown] The Government cut its fuel-efficiency budget from £21 million to £15 million in 1989-90, a fraction of the £200 million ($340 million) nuclear-energy programme. The UK still has no minimum standards or labelling for energy efficiency in electrical appliances.

[image, unknown] At the November 1989 global-warming conference in Holland the UK was a key opponent of the Dutch proposal to stabilize and reduce CO2 emissions. At a similar UN-sponsored meeting in Washington in February 1990 the UK again dragged its feet on the issue.

[image, unknown] Total road traffic is expected to more than double in the next 35 years and the Government plans a massive road-building scheme to accommodate the increased number of cars. This will cost £5.7 billion pounds ($9.7 billion) over the next three years. In marked contrast public spending on the railways has been cut by 45% over the last five years.

[image, unknown] Despite an overwhelming scientific consensus, the Department of Energy says a lack of 'firm scientific data' on the greenhouse effect makes it difficult to respond to a problem 'whose scale is yet uncertain'.


Mikhail Gorbachev


'We are ready to discontinue our production of CFCs by the year 2000. This year two more of our factories are transferring to ozone-safe technologies. Time is pressing and if we miss the chance at present, it will be catastrophically late tomorrow...'

- Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, November 1989

In January 1990, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev called for international monitoring and control of the environment and backed suggestions for a 'Green Cross' - an international agency to respond to ecological disasters.


[image, unknown] At the 72-nation global-warming conference in the Netherlands in November 1989, the Soviet Union joined the US, Japan and Britain in blocking a key proposal to stabilize CO2 emissions by the turn of the century.

[image, unknown] A failure to invest in new capital equipment means that Soviet industry is notoriously inefficient in its energy use with a consequent increase in greenhouse-gas emissions.

[image, unknown] Soviet agriculture, especially on the vast state farms, depends on massive applications of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Nitrogen fertilizers are destroying fragile farmlands and sending tons of nitrogen-oxide gases into the air. Hundreds of square miles of land near the Aral Sea have been turned to desert. And the Aral itself, once one of the world's largest inland bodies of water, has shrunk to a quarter of its normal size.


Brian Mulroney


'In no area is the link between our economic activity and environmental disruption more evident or more troubling than in the area of energy policy. Canada is committed to applying the principles of sustainable development to our energy future.'

'Sustainable development requires the full co-operation of the entire international community. CO2 emissions in my country and the destruction of the Amazon are two sides of the same coin.'

'While international co-operation is crucial, environmental protection begins at home. That is why the Canadian government is fundamentally re-examining its approach to the environment.'

- all quotes Prime Minister Brian Mulroney:
June 1988; October 1989; November 1989


[image, unknown] The Government has slashed funding for energy efficiency and alternative-energy projects from $400 million in 1984 to $32 million today.

[image, unknown] The budget of Environment Canada, the government branch charged with looking after the environment, has been cut by $34 million while more than $5 billion in federal funds has been committed to petroleum mega-projects across the country. One project alone (the OSLO oil sands) would put 220 megatonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, more than twice the country's 1985 carbon emissions.

[image, unknown] The Government recently gutted commuter rail services and shut down a major portion of the passenger rail service across the country, thus making more people dependent on travel by car and inevitably increasing CO2 emissions.


Bob Hawke


'Australia has taken a lead on CFCs and halons by promising to reduce their production by 95 per cent by 1994... We're already acting. We're not copping out on anything.'

- Environment Minister Graham Richardson

'The problem is that by the time the jury returns its verdict the damage to the planet may be irreversible. the time to act is now.'

- Foreign Affairs Minister Gareth Evans

'There is no need to panic or over-react to the greenhouse issue. We must keep rebutting the simplistic and often self-interested assertions of those who blame coal as the main cause of the problem.'

- Federal Resources Minister Peter Cook


[image, unknown] The Government has not yet acted to reduce CFCs or other greenhouse gases; no standards or timetables have been set. Its first response has been to call for a co-ordinated international effort to see whether major climate changes are actually taking place.

[image, unknown] Coal (at 49 per cent of the total) is the major source of CO2 from fossil-fuel combustion in Australia. The Government hopes to boost coal exports in the future - the industry is seen as an important source of foreign exchange. And no efforts have been made to reduce local consumption.


[image, unknown]


'China has a very important reason to be concerned about the ozone layer - there are 1.1 billion Chinese so if the ozone layer breaks down, the one-fifth of the world's population that is Chinese will suffer most.'

- Zhang Chongxian. National Environmental Protection Agency. March 1989


[image, unknown] China has refused to sign the Montreal Accord agreeing to cut CFC output by half within a decade. The accord has been ratified by more than 30 countries.

[image, unknown] China's CFC production jumped 20 per cent yearly through the 1980s. If this growth continues the country will be the world's largest CFC producer within a decade.

[image, unknown] In June, 1989 the Government approved a Ministry of Energy blueprint which outlined plans to increase coal consumption by 400 per cent by the year 2000 in a drive to boost per-capita income. China already relies on coal (the most potent C02-producing fossil fuel) to meet 70 per cent of its energy needs. Chinese coal makes up 50 per cent of world reserves.

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