The German election could be the second this year to be won or lost on the environment. In New Zealand, the Labour party failed to win its anticipated overall majority, partly because of its determination to approve the planting of genetically modified crops. The Greens, who did better than expected, have threatened to bring the government down if it lets the plantings go ahead. In Germany, Edmund Stoiber seemed certain of victory, until the floods exposed the fact that his shadow cabinet contains no environment spokesman. Now that the Germans are rediscovering their dependency upon the natural world, Stoiber's anti-environmentalism could be fatal. As the Indian proverb says, if you drive nature out of the door with a broom, she will come back through the window with a pitchfork.
The environment is a long-term issue which has always suffered from the short-term imperatives of the political cycle. It has been treated, by governments all over the world, as a problem which can be endlessly deferred to the next administration. Now the problem is catching up with the politicians, but most of them have yet to notice. The fourth earth summit, which begins at the end of this week, looks certain to be a disaster.
It's not just that the summit will fail to resolve the earth's problems. Its decisions are likely to become a major cause of environmental destruction in their own right. The solution to the slow collapse of the earth's capacity to support human life, both the UN and most of the governments of the rich world have decided, is more of the problem.
The UN hopes for two kinds of outcome from the summit, which it calls type I and type II. Type I outcomes are the agreements brokered by governments. These negotiations, like those at all the previous earth summits, have so far been dominated by the EU and the US. While poorer nations have called for the rich countries to recognize their ecological debt to the rest of the world, to cough up the money they promised and failed to deliver 10 years ago and to find ways of holding big business to account, the rich world has insisted instead that the interests of the poor and the environment take second place to free trade.
Sections of the world trade agreement have simply been pasted into the draft negotiating text, ensuring that corporate freedom overrides environmental protection. The world's water supplies, climate, health and biodiversity will, from now on, the rich nations insist, be defended by means of "public-private partnerships": the US and EU want to do to the environment what the British government wants to do to the London Underground. To defend the world from the destruction brokered by multinational capital, governments will tie a ribbon round it and hand it to multinational capital.
But if the type I outcomes are likely to harm both the poor and the environment, the type II outcomes could be devastating. The UN has permitted big business to capture not just the results of the negotiations, but also the negotiating process itself. The corporations are moving into the vacuum left by the heads of state, and asserting their claim to global governance.
In principle, type II outcomes are voluntary agreements negotiated by governments, businesses and people's organizations. In practice, the corporations, being better funded and more powerful than the people's groups, are running the circus. They propose to regulate themselves through codes of practice, which in reality amount to little more than the rebranding of destructive activities as beneficial ones. As the Corporate Europe Observatory has shown, the original purpose of the Responsible Care program submitted by the chemical industry was to prevent the introduction of new health and safety laws after the Bhopal disaster. This, and the other schemes proposed by business, are likely to be listed as official outcomes of the summit.
These agreements, in other words, will reclassify some of the world's most destructive corporations as the officially sanctioned saviors of the environment. They will sow confusion among the people with whom these corporations engage, and undermine effective regulation. In the wake of the Enron and WorldCom scandals, the UN is helping companies to argue that voluntary self-auditing is an effective substitute for democratic control.
All this makes the presence of corporate executives on the UK's official delegation a matter of pressing public interest. In line with the principles of open government, Tony Blair's office refuses to reveal just how many business people are being flown to Johannesburg at public expense to represent us. But two weeks ago we learnt that while Mr Blair was intending to leave Michael Meacher, the environment minister, behind, he would be traveling with the directors of Rio Tinto, Anglo-American and Thames Water. Meacher, thanks to a public outcry, has been permitted to go to the ball, but nothing would induce the prime minister to throw the ugly sisters off the plane.
Rio Tinto is the mining company which has attracted more complaints of environmental destruction and abuse of indigenous people's rights than any other. Anglo-American has been described as the economic pillar of South Africa's apartheid regime. Just two days after we discovered that Thames Water had become an official defender of the global environment, the head of its parent company, RWE, threatened to cancel the creation of 4,000 jobs unless the European commission dropped its plans to impose stricter controls on the production of carbon dioxide.
The governments of the world, in other words, appear to be coming together in Johannesburg to conspire against the interests of their people. This perception contributes, paradoxically, to the problem: the less people feel they can trust their governments, the more political space is cleared for the corporations to colonize.
But the organization which is likely to suffer most is the UN. The fourth earth summit - the biggest-ever meeting of heads of state - should enhance the UN's prestige. Instead, it could destroy it. Already the "global compact" the UN has struck with big corporations, lending them credibility in return for unenforceable voluntary commitments, has alienated it from the very people who once sprang to its defense. Now the UN is seen, especially in the poor world, in the same light as the World Bank, the IMF and the World Trade Organization: as an instrument of power, deployed against the powerless. Its willingness to help the wreckers of the environment to reposition themselves as the saviors of the world will reinforce this impression. Next time the US seeks to cut the UN budget, the people who would once have protested will be more inclined to cheer.
The protection of the environment is the definitive test of statesmanship. While the powerful people who wish to acquire for themselves the common property of humankind have always to be flattered and appeased, the long-term survival of humanity is in no politician's immediate interest; until, that is, the environment bites back. Perhaps the only hope we have is that nature, as she has done in Germany, casts her vote much sooner than the politicians guessed.
George Monbiot is the author of "Captive State: the Corporate Takeover of Britain," and the investigative travel books "Poisoned Arrows," "Amazon Watershed" and "No Man's Land." He writes a weekly column for the Guardian newspaper.