Friday, 1 January 2010

11 December 2009

CHICAGO/LONDON: There are some occasions when radio reporters have to do things that may appear to be extremely stupid. I’ve just been in Chicago for a few days, and believe me, standing on a street corner in the snow, in the teeth of a howling icy wind, and asking passers-by what they think about “global warming”, probably did appear very stupid. Certainly the passers-by looked at me as if I was mad.

I could, of course, have saved myself some embarrassment by asking about “climate change”, rather than “global warming”. Trouble is, at least in Chicago, no one seems to know what you’re talking about.

And while we’re on the subject of embarrassment, spare a thought for my colleague (I think she’d better remain nameless, but her friends and colleagues know who she is), who found herself chasing across a Chicago park early last Sunday morning after some geese whose tuneless honking we needed to record. To get close enough, she had to catch them unawares … so here’s the scene: zero temperatures, senior BBC editor, microphone held aloft, chasing geese across a field, geese merrily honking away. You should have been there …

But seriously. We were in Chicago to report on its claim to be one of America’s greenest cities. It’s Barack Obama’s adopted home town, of course, and back in its heyday, it was a city of railways, steelworks, cattleyards and slaughterhouses. I somehow doubt that back then anyone would have dared claim it was environmentally-friendly.

How times have changed. Now Chicago has its very own Climate Action Plan; it has “green buildings” that consume far less energy than conventional structures. Thousands of trees and flowers have been planted; the shoreline along Lake Michigan has been turned into a splendid Millennium Park; the honking geese now live happily on what used to be a private airfield reserved for the use of corporate jets and hot-shot executives.

But inevitably, there is another side to the story. Take yourself out of central Chicago, to the low-income neighbourhood of Little Village, home to one of the biggest Mexican communities in the US, and you’ll find a coal-fired electricity generating plant that local residents say is seriously damaging their health. A study carried out by scientists from Harvard University some years ago estimated that this plant, together with another one nearby, could be responsible for 41 premature deaths, 2,800 asthma attacks, and 550 emergency hospital visits every year.

All of which adds a human dimension to the fiendishly complicated negotiations now under way at the international climate change conference in Copenhagen. One of the many issues under consideration is how to strike a balance not only between developed and developing economies, but also between national and local, governmental and private action.

I reported from Chicago both for Newshour, on the BBC World Service, and for The World Tonight -- you can hear the material via the respective programmes’ websites. And one of the questions I was interested in exploring was whether the kind of plan Chicago has drawn up at city level could be more effective than policies agreed at national or international level.

Or do you have to reach binding international agreements to make sure that some nations don’t “cheat” by allowing polluting industries to get away with emissions they wouldn’t be allowed elsewhere?

I shall be reporting from Copenhagen next week as the climate change conference reaches its climax – and here’s my prediction. The news next Friday evening will be that the whole thing is on a knife-edge; the negotiations will be described as “fraught”, and “extremely difficult”. Some of the poorer nations will claim that their interests are being ignored. Then, some time during the night, there’ll be a breakthrough, and by Saturday morning, the headlines will be of a “historic moment when the world came together to save the planet for future generations”.

But of course, I may be entirely wrong, which is why I’d better go to Copenhagen.

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