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Saturday Feature
 
UK consulates spread message Washington does not hear
Andrew Ward
7/29/2006
 

          When Margaret Beckett, the new British foreign secretary, announced last month that promoting international action against climate change would be one of her top priorities, she probably did not have Raleigh, North Carolina, in mind as the best place to start.
Yet, for more than a year, British officials have been quietly engaging with a commission set up by the North Carolina General Assembly to consider how the state should respond to global warming. "We've provided them with British research on climate change and talked about our experience of emissions trading in the EU," says Martin Rickerd, British consul-general in Atlanta.
The North Carolina case is typical of the grassroots diplomacy being conducted by British officials across the US, as London, frustrated by the Bush administration's sceptical attitude towards climate change, searches for allies on the issue outside of Washington.
Britain hopes its work with states, cities and academic institutions in the US will help raise awareness of global warming and increase domestic pressure on the federal government to cooperate with international efforts to tackle the threat.
All seven British consulate-generals in the US are engaged in the push, with Mr Rickerd's Atlanta office responsible for spreading the message in the south-east.
"People think that all consulates-generals do is issue passports and visit prisoners," he says. "But increasingly they are more like mini-embassies, pursuing the same political objectives at the regional level that the embassy pursues at the national level."
Of all the US regions in which to preach the dangers of climate change, the southeast, known for its conservative values and car-loving culture, must be among the most challenging. But it is also the region that has perhaps the most to lose, with thousands of miles of low-lying coastline exposed to rising sea levels and worsening hurricanes.
Instead of confronting climate-change doubters head on, the British strategy has been to forge alliances with those that are sympathetic to its position. For example, the Atlanta office has worked closely with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a North Carolina-based environmental group.
Stephen Smith, executive director of the alliance, says his group joined forces with British officials to persuade southern mayors to sign up to the US Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement, a nationwide coalition committed to action on the issue.
"Having the official stamp of the British government on the message gives it a lot more credibility," says Mr Smith. "The British are providing the science and the leadership on this issue that our own government is not."
Recently the Atlanta consulate-general helped pay for 15 officials from south-eastern cities to attend a conference in Chicago on sustainable development.
Mr Rickerd says one of the aims is to influence state and city leaders who may one day have a role in shaping national policy.
John Ashton, appointed last month as Ms Beckett's special representative on climate change, insists grassroots engagement is not designed to circumvent Washington. "There's lots of constructive conversations we can have with the [Bush] administration," he says. "But thought leaders and opinion formers are scattered very widely around the US so we need to take a multi-channel approach."
Mr Rickerd understands there is a line that must not be crossed between engagement and interference. In North Carolina, for example, he says the British role is limited to providing information rather than lobbying. "It's for them to reach their own decisions," he says.
Mr Smith says British input has been welcomed but warns there is a limit to how much the UK can do.
"If their involvement was more widely known there might be some push back against the idea of a foreign government influencing policy," he says. "But most people understand this is a global problem that requires a global solution."

 

 
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