Monday, December 03, 2012

The view from Doha is uninspiring

What we need from our leaders is: inspiration. In Doha, it seems sadly lacking.

If you fly to Doha in Qatar on he Gulf, you pass 35,000 feet over the oilfields of Iran and Iraq.

In the oily blackness of night, hundreds of orange gas flares outshine city lights by a factor of fifty, visible from space.

Kuwait is sparkly island, as is Doha itself, yet another reminder of the power fossil fuel reserves have over the Middle East.

The tiny desert isthmus of Qatar holds not a drop of natural potable water. It makes £106 billion a year from selling oil and gas that hapnes to be under its barren sands. Its residents have the highest per capita income on earth.

They get all their electricity for free. It is used profligately. The urinals in Doha airport are constantly flushed with hot water. All of the country's water has to be desalinated using oil-fired electricity.

It is here, in the Qatar National Conference Centre, where the representatives of most countries in the world have gathered for yet another round of painfully slow, and apparently almost inconsequential, negotiations to curb global levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

The grandfathers of the oil rich elite that runs this state were bedoin, wandering the desert with their tents and camels. Now they own fleets of Lexus 4x4s and Porsches.

I met a senior account manager for a Fortune 400 listed company that supplies process machinery to the oil industry in Kuwait. He held a Jordanian passport and said he believes in climate change. "But what can I do? It's not up to people like me to change the system. Our machinery will work just as well on renewable energy. But here is where the market is".

A wealthy manager of a pipeline maintenance company, in his spotless white schumagg and thoub, told me that he was aware of the talks going on in the conference centre down the road, but for him it was "just another conference". He won't be going.

Next week is one to promote trade, held by the World Chambers Federation, where 12,000 chambers will be represented. He will attend that. Good for business. The following week is a film festival, peddling dreams and escape stories.

All of this is part of the wish of Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, Qatar's ruler, to be a big player on the world stage, to convince the world that Qatar is not just about oil, but culture.

Maybe he does think, like Masdar's leaders, that the game will one day be up for oil. The country is currently spending £20 million, with Chevron and GreenGulf, on a Solar Test Facility, to investigate what technology can best convert the copious amount of solar radiation that falls on this desert land to electricity. It includes a solar desalination plant.

By hosting COP-18, the Emir is hedging his bets. COP-18 means that these annual horse-trading, long-grass-kicking stand-offs have been doing the rounds of nations for eighteen years.

Knowledge of the threat of climate change is not new.

Twenty three years ago, I was asked by Greenpeace Book's John May to write a comic book explaining global warming to young people.

Three years before that, Margaret Thatcher, in the only act for which I unreservedly admire her, alerted world leaders, especially Ronald Reagan, to it.

If only today's world leaders had Maggie's conviction.

At the heart of the story I wrote for John was a conflict between a greedy industrialist and his brother, an enlightened environmentalist. It was based on the Goldsmith brothers, James, the financier and corporate raider, and Ed, the Ecologist magazine's former publisher.

James' son, Zac, is now Conservative MP for Richmond Park, and as good an example of a Green Tory as you will find.

I suppose what I'm saying is, that at the Doha talks, being held in the context of the most dire warnings yet about global temperature rises, it is political leadership that is needed more than ever.

The talks give the impression of being complicated, and they are, but the principles are simple: the developed nations need to cough up and everyone needs to commit.

Politicians need to talk with conviction, echoing President Kennedy with "ask not what the planet can do for you but what you can do for the planet".

Or echoing Churchill, with "We will fight climate change in the factories, in the fields and in the streets. We will never surrender!"

In a word, what we need from our leaders is: inspiration.

In Doha, it seems sadly lacking.

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