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Failure to address climate change like spitting in the wind

by Teruhiko Mano

The Toyako G8 Summit held from July 7 to 9 with the participation of leaders from 23 other countries exposed the wide rift between the developed and developing worlds and failed to reach concrete agreements on key issues ranging from climate change to surging oil and food prices and the weak dollar.

There were several reasons. One obviously was the lack of leadership on the part of the Group of Eight leaders.

The purpose of the annual G8 summit is to make top-down decisions on issues that individual countries will have difficulty addressing. True, the share of the global economy occupied by the G8 major industrialized nations has been declining from the dominant 70 percent they commanded when they launched what was then known as the Group of Five in 1975. But they still account for about 60 percent of total GDP.

United, the G8 nations must be able to drive the world forward. However, the G8 leaders at Toyako, who all had weak popular support at home, appeared to prioritize their own national interests even as they discussed global issues.

The United States, the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, bears a major responsibility for the inaction.

After withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol, the U.S. launched its own initiative, the Major Economic Meeting, in an attempt to retake control of the international dialogue on global warming, a move that regrettably disrupted the unity of the G8 on this issue. Although the U.S. repeated its call for a strong dollar, it failed to spell out its plans for reversing the dollar’s weakness, which is one of the main reasons behind the climb in oil and food prices.

The second reason was irresponsible behavior on the part of fast-growing emerging economies, like China and India. These countries do not realize their own responsibilities as major greenhouse gas emitters. While their combined emissions today account for 42 percent of the world’s total emissions, the emerging economies continued to lay the blame on past emissions generated by the industrialized powers.

Despite their huge foreign currency reserves and nuclear arsenals, these countries behaved as if they were still poor nations in need of financial help and technology handouts. I wonder if they are really qualified to take part in the creation of a global framework for handling climate change.

Meanwhile, France’s push to expand the G8 membership to include the emerging economies appears to be linked to its desire to promote its nuclear power business with China.

The nations taking part in the annual summit are supposed to share a common set of values and a willingness to contribute to stabilizing the world economy. This issue needs to be discussed along with the question of membership in the United Nations Security Council.

The third problem was the host nation, Japan. With its hands tied by a divided parliament that hampers efforts to adopt new policy, Japan is still struggling to achieve the 2012 target it set out for itself under its own Kyoto Protocol and is in no position to propose a bold, long-term plan of action.

The administration of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda may have been hoping that diplomatic achievements would salvage his sagging popularity. The government hosted as many as 10 preparatory meetings in the leadup to the summit, including the environment ministers’ meeting in March and the Tokyo International Conference on African Development in May.

While it is true the image of the prime minister shaking hands with leaders of the 23 countries that took part in the Toyako summit flooded TV news, in the end, he was unable to forge a broad consensus.

This resulted in criticism that the event was a huge waste of taxpayer money, and provided only a minor boost to Fukuda’s popularity.

The Toyako summit served as another reminder that it is increasingly difficult to align the interests of various countries in an era of globalization. There are mounting problems like food and energy crises that have an immediate impact on people’s lives, and these tend to relegate international efforts on global warming to the back burner.

World leaders must realize that doing nothing about climate change is like spitting in the wind. Some countries are in danger of being submerged from global warming and the world needs to work together on this issue.

As Japan’s experience with asthma during its rapid postwar industrial growth and Beijing’s experience with air pollution today clearly show, the foremost victims of a country’s environmental problems are its own citizens.

Beijing’s air pollution is so serious that some of the athletes in the Olympics are practicing in Japan until the last minute.

The leaders of each country need to realize that the biggest victims of their inaction on the environment will be their own people.

Teruhiko Mano is a professor at Seigakuin University Graduate School.