Helping the world to breathe more easily

January 12, 2001

In the battle against climate change, good intentions are not enough. Lobbyists must become more Machiavellian. Fred Pearce reports.

Know your enemy." It has been Paul Harris's motto as United States military officer, as British academic and as peripatetic analyst of the fast-growing business of environmental diplomacy. Harris's official biography from London Guildhall University, where he holds the post of senior lecturer in international relations, calls him a "passionate environmental advocate and a vegetarian". It does not immediately conjure up a picture of a man working for Ronald Reagan's America - still less of a man in the front line of the cold war, tracking Soviet submarines for the US Navy. But, after graduating in political science in 1984, that is what he did.

He gets shirty if you suggest this is somehow odd: "Why odd? Are people in the Royal Navy assumed to be anti-environment? Do vegetarians avoid the Royal Marines? I get frustrated with self-righteous people who see inconsistencies in other people's lives."

Harris is no born-again green. His environmental interests predated his military career. He began scuba diving at 12. "Jacques Cousteau was my childhood hero."

But he admits that his military uniform did not entirely fit. "My interest in the environment was considered strange by some people in the US Navy. It is a heavy responsibility preparing to destroy submarines, which I viewed as boats full of innocent people," he says. "I got scared about how some officers viewed war and I realised that I did not want to take part in starting the next one."

So he returned to academe in 1990, just as the world discovered environmental diplomacy. Fresh from their efforts to save the ozone layer through the 1987 Montreal protocol, diplomats found a host of environmental issues clogging their in-trays. The 1992 Earth Summit brought treaties on climate change and biodiversity - and initiated others on desertification and toxic chemicals - and led to the Kyoto protocol on climate.

After seven years studying this process at various US universities, Harris moved to Britain where, besides his Guildhall post, he is a visiting research fellow at Mansfield College, Oxford. Last autumn he began a two-year sabbatical at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. There he is continuing his work as director of a Guildhall-based project on environmental change and foreign policy, a major international research project involving more than 50 researchers.

The main focus for the project, which began in 1998, has been US foreign policy on environmental issues. This is a fraught topic. The US, often with the support of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, has been blamed for failed deals on the Kyoto protocol in the Hague and on efforts to secure agreement on global plant genetic resources. The filibustering four also held up the Cartagena protocol on biosafety for more than a year. They appear to take on the world in defence of free trade and corporate power.

Yet Harris has written a dissertation on "the US government's acceptance of transnational equity in global environmental policy". What acceptance? The world's biggest polluter shows few signs of contrition. By the standards of much of the world, the US has not done much to embrace equity. But, Harris argues, by its own standards it has.

"Most outside the US and many inside are screaming for them to do more. But what strikes me is how little most people know about the US. It is difficult for the president to do what he wants, especially in areas where entrenched interests are involved. When I say the US government has accepted international equity, I mean that the Clinton administration came to recognise that equity is an important component of successful efforts to address global environmental problems."

Harris is right that the US has come some way. Until recently the Clinton administration refused to submit the Kyoto protocol to Congress for ratification until key developing nations such as China had agreed to accept targets for emissions of greenhouse gases. On the international stage this was crazy politics. China may be the world's second largest emitter of carbon dioxide, but its emissions per head of population are little more than a tenth those of the US. What price equity, you might ask. But domestically, Clinton felt it was the only way to make progress with a hostile Congress.

The situation is, however, changing. At last November's climate talks in the Hague, Congress appeared less obdurate. Meanwhile, oil companies are investing in hydrogen fuel cells and market traders are contemplating the potential profits of carbon trading under the Kyoto framework. When US chief negotiator Frank Loy arrived in the Hague, he said that the demand for targets for developing countries had been dropped.

"I see substantial changes in the US position," Harris says. Partly because of outside pressure, he says, "it is no longer possible for the US to claim that it does not have a responsibility to the rest of the world. It simply cannot expect the poor of the world to stay poor so it can continue to pollute."

He is far from being an apologist for the US position. "Know your enemy" is the creed. "By finding answers to the question of why the US has not done more, we can get closer to finding ways to change US policy for the better," he says. But he remains a realist. "Barring some environmental catastrophe in the US, don't expect more than gradual, mostly incremental, change."

So he has a mission. To understand US foreign policy you have to understand US domestic politics. You have to know how the system works - and that is what he dedicated much of the 1990s to finding out. Environmental lobbyists are not being professional enough, or indeed Machiavellian enough, he says. "Those who want to change countries' international environmental policies need to get far more sophisticated in their tactics and strategies. Business long ago figured this out. By understanding the complex details of how policy is made, even the weaker actors in the drama can have a greater impact."

But to understand is not to acquiesce. "Non-government organisations and the media despise incremental change and therefore push policy-makers to act," he says.

Harris admits to a double purpose in moving to Hong Kong. One was to escape from the "national disgrace" of low salaries for British lecturers. The other was to change the focus of the environmental-change project from the US to east and southeast Asia. If Asia is the world's new economic frontier, it is also the new environmental frontier. And he has good news from the front. Countries such as China remain adamantly opposed "to international environmental regulations that might constrain their development", but they are changing for other reasons.

Choking on fumes from coal burning in its cities, China is switching to natural gas, which creates less smog and fewer greenhouse gases. "That is good news for the global environment," Harris says.

He seems to follow the new frontiers of power - from the military to environmental diplomacy; from the US to Asia. The US, his original home, remains powerful, he says. "But it is not nearly as powerful as most people think. All those aircraft carriers and nuclear bombs are worthless when it comes to climate change."

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