SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Time to act

Stranded: The Arctic is melting at a faster rate than ever before in recorded history.   | Photo Credit: Photo: AP

BILL KIRKMAN

The reality of disaster from global warming is undeniable and we need to do something about it.

AFTER the publication of the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) it will surely be impossible not to take the threat posed by global warming seriously. For many years, the words "global warming" have become a kind of mantra, tripping lightly off our tongues. The non-scientists among us have known that the evidence is important, but it has been beyond our comprehension and therefore easy to ignore. Now the report, by a panel of experts set up by the United Nations and published in the past few days, leaves us in no doubt that what the world is facing is a potential disaster.

Hard facts

Average temperatures, the scientists tell us, might increase by over six per cent by the end of the century. Even an increase of four per cent could destroy hundreds of species, and cause devastating shortages of food and water, and floods which would displace millions of people.There is recognition that much of the problem is caused by the actions or inactions of people and governments. The IPCC panel points out that the effect of some of the problems could be reduced by the adoption of "clean and resource efficient technologies".What is quite clear is that drastic action must be taken by governments around the world. No one can imagine that this will be simple, or that one prescription will solve the problem. Nevertheless, one major step certainly needs to be taken. As The Guardian put it in an editorial: "What we do know is simple: that climate change is most likely caused by carbon emissions. The answer is to cut those emissions."

Conflict of interests

Action of this kind will undoubtedly not be popular. It will conflict with many commercial interests. It will be opposed by industrial organisations whose profits are fed by activities which increase carbon emissions oil companies and airlines, to name but two. It is likely that part of the attack on carbon emissions will require the imposition of taxes, and, as we have seen recently in the United Kingdom, any mention of increasing taxes on air travel, for example, produces howls of protest.In short, no government is going to find it easy to take the steps which are undoubtedly necessary, because of the unpopularity of these necessary measures. In any democracy it will be particularly difficult, because governments depend for survival on remaining popular with their voters.What, surely, is needed is the achievement of a consensus among politicians about both the need for action and the kind of action that is necessary. If that can be achieved, no political party should suffer more than its rivals from the unpopularity of measures taken. To put it negatively, all will be equally unpopular. To put it more positively, we shall recognise that our political leaders are agreed on what needs to be done.Is the achievement of such a consensus an impossible dream?

Glimmer of hope

It may be, but the nature of the threat offers some hope that it might be attainable. Within the U.K., I look back to the Second Wworld War. When it began, in 1939, there were huge political divisions in the country. The 1930s had been a period of poverty, and the poor were deprived. Social services, to provide a safety net for the unemployed, were rudimentary. The Conservative government was out of touch with the population. The Labour party then far more socialist than New Labour is now had no experience in government.The outbreak of war, and the threat posed by Hitler and his Nazi cohorts, had a unifying effect. Coming under Nazi rule (which was a genuine possibility) was seen by virtually everyone as a disaster, to be avoided at all costs. Domestic political divisions had to be forgotten until Hitler was defeated. For six years we had a coalition government. Churchill not great as a peacetime leader galvanised the country in an astonishing way. Attlee, the Labour leader (and post-war Prime Minister) served, with good success, as deputy Prime Minister.The real possibility of cataclysm produced unity. It did not solve the domestic political problems. They re-emerged as the framework for politics after the war, but until the cataclysm had been averted, they took second place.

Reason to unite

Obviously the circumstances are not the same. The parallel is not exact. Nevertheless, the reality of disaster from global warming is a transcendent reality. It is not a matter for political division, and if the world's political leaders behave responsibly, they will not allow it to become one. Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, U.K. Email him at: >bill.kirkman@gmail.com