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Last Updated: Monday, 8 October 2007, 10:31 GMT 11:31 UK
Manipulating the climate message
ANALYSIS
By Roger Harrabin
Environment analyst, BBC News

President Bush (Getty Images)
Semantics play a part in getting China to attend Mr Bush's meeting

What's in a name? A lot, according to the Chinese government.

It forced President Bush to change the title of his recent international climate gathering from the "big emitters" conference to the "major economies" conference.

The apparently minor change reveals the exquisite sensitivity of global climate politics.

The US is keen to paint the Chinese as the world's future biggest polluter, but the Chinese reject the epithet because their emissions per person are about one-sixth of the average American.

President Bush first mooted a conference of large emitters just before the G8+5 meeting in the summer. I understand that China was approached but refused to attend the meeting in Washington unless the name change was made.

The victory was notional because the world media continued to refer to the meeting at the end of September as the large emitters conference anyway.

Indeed, the American Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice took the opportunity to consolidate the message by welcoming India, China and Brazil as "equals" in the battle against climate change - an accolade they do not want.

The original wording of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change signed in 1992 by President Bush senior refers to "common but differentiated responsibility" on emissions cuts, but this phrase has been shunned by his son.

Media control

The whole Washington climate conference was a triumph of US media management. The opening public statements were made by President Bush, Dr Rice and Jim Connaughton, the head of White House climate strategy.

UNFCCC secretary general Yvo de Boer
Yvo de Boer was the only non-American to speak to the media
The only foreigner to speak publicly was Yvo de Boer who, as a representative of the UN, remained neutrally uncritical of his hosts. The two-day meeting then went into closed session.

Other delegates were furious at what they said were false leadership claims on climate by Mr Bush, but they were not given a platform to address the media.

When they emerged at the end of the conference on the Friday, they found that the co-ordinator, Mr Connaughton, had slipped out to brief the media half-an-hour before the end of the meeting, and the US TV networks had gone home.

The conference did not receive widespread publicity in the US despite growing public concern about climate change.

But those papers that did report it ran headlines like "Bush promises leadership on climate" although the Washington Post and New York Times did carry more critical messages down in the body of their articles.

"The White House slaughtered us," said one European delegate in search of the vanished American TV crews, "they absolutely slaughtered us".

Climate roadshow

The decision to convene the Washington meeting was in itself a masterstroke of PR.

Many of the delegates had low expectations but felt compelled to attend. They noted that the meeting had the same cast-list as the G8+5 meeting of the Gleneagles dialogue (initiated by Tony Blair and hosted by the head of G8 on rotation basis) with just two more guests, South Korea and Australia - both traditional supporters of the US in international relations, particularly climate change.

Next summer, Japan will host the Gleneagles dialogue during its G8 presidency, but Mr Bush has now asked the heads of government of the 16 biggest economies to travel to Washington to discuss climate, too.

Some delegates felt trapped by Mr Bush's offer - and fearful of its consequences.

Visiting heads of governments will be obliged by the rules of diplomatic nicety to avoid publicly confronting their host (with whom they may well need to do other business).

It is not clear what extra deal on climate Mr Bush hopes to gain from a second meeting in terms of content; but the very fact of hosting the meeting will give Mr Connaughton control once again of the agenda, timetable and media access.

And Mr Bush may attempt to argue that as the heads are meeting in Washington on climate, G8+5 should focus on other matters.

Chinese presentation

Some of Europe's delegations had actually planned to speak to the media in Washington, which is more than can be said for the large Chinese delegation.

At international climate meetings they are virtually invisible to the media. One Chinese diplomat ruefully told me: "We believe that we have a plan to reduce the growth in emissions and we are going to carry out that plan so that should be enough.

"We are very naive about dealing with the way the rest of the world sees us."

The BBC requested an interview for radio and TV with the Chinese head of delegation but he only agreed to an off-record background briefing.

Perhaps there is an opening for a large PR firm to advise the Chinese on how to conduct themselves in a world where diplomacy is often influenced by headlines and sound-bites.

By far the best operator of climate spin is the White House's own Jim Connaughton - a brilliant lawyer. Perhaps China could offer to quadruple his salary - it would be money well spent.



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