Why clouds are gathering over the future of climate change by Rolf Stein, CEO

Following the environmental disasters of the past few years, it ought to stand to reason that climate change, and the extreme weather phenomena that are said to be associated with it, would be at the forefront of the international political agenda.  In the past decade, giant tsunamis have taken thousands of lives in Japan and tens of thousands in Southeast Asia; drought has continued to cause famine across sub-Saharan Africa; hurricanes have devestated parts of the developed and developing world; and freak snow falls have brought areas of the developed world to a standstill.  Moreover, as the world’s population continues to rise dramatically – especially in developing countries some of  which are particularly at risk from rising water levels – the long term effects of climate change should have been brought into very sharp focus.  Nonetheless, the science and politics of climate change remain plagued by conflict, denial and, worst of all, a creeping political division of what should be a united front.

The lack of international consensus on climate change was highlighted earlier this month when The Wall Street Journal published a letter signed by sixteen eminent international scientists.  The letter claims that there is ‘no need to panic about climate change’.  It goes on to attack many claims made on behalf of the climate change lobby.  The authors refute the statement that there is ‘incontrovertible scientific evidence’ that global warming exists.  They flatly deny that carbon dioxide acts as a pollutant.  They reject any call to ‘drastic action’ to decarbonize the global economy as unnecessary,  unproven and ‘alarmist’.

It must be said that there are valid points made in this article.  It is dangerous to call any branch of scientific theory ‘incontrovertible’; any commentator with valid concerns or suggestions should be given a fair hearing.  However, there is a more pernicious subtext to this letter – one that is arguably more damaging to the cause of climate change than any outright denial.  In this letter, climate change is portrayed as a tool of The Establishment.  Opponents to ‘received wisdom’ are feted as free-thinkers.  The scientific community’s rejection of dissent on global warming is likened to Soviet-era purges of scientists who did not toe Stalin’s party line.  Climate change is ‘an excuse for governments to raise taxes’ and a tool used by big business to subsidise their own green vanity projects.  In these words, climate change is reduced to a piece of political rhetoric; it is belittled from a scientific theory to a crowd-pleasing soundbite.

Such politicisation of climate change will only intensify on an international stage as this year’s US Presidential elections approach. Republicans are keen to present the election as a choice between ‘the environment and jobs’ and have geared their $100million election machine towards undermining Barack Obama’s green agenda.  Such rhetoric is likely to strike a double blow to the campaign against climate change.  If the Republicans are successful in 2012, they will roll back Mr Obama’s green policies as quickly as they will roll back his healthcare ambitions.  If the Democrats win, they may tone down their environmental commitments to keep the public and media on side.  Either way, the cause of combating climate change will suffer over party politics, as we are also beginning to see in the UK.

This incessant politicking obscures what is essentially a very simple proposition: methane and carbon dioxide are gases which “insulate” the Earth causing its temperature to rise.  It is dangerous to confuse debates over the scientific detail with the reality that our climate is changing.  Human activity may not be the only cause of this; it may not even be the prime cause; but temperatures are rising and our climate is changing and, on the balance of probabilities, this is due to pretty well understood mechanisms observed repeatedly over our planet’s long history.  Unless we want to put all our chips on red, this fact alone should make all further debate one of detail and not principle.

The ‘Inconvenient Truth’ is that we will all have to make significant changes to the way we live, if not to prevent, then at least to adapt to climate change.  Any reasonable person should come to this inescapable conclusion.  Any reasonable parent will want to leave the best possible legacy for their children and grandchildren and preferably not be confronted with the question in decades to come – “why didn’t you do anything to stop it?”. Climate change is not a party issue – it is something which affects every single one of us equally.  Politicians of all parties and nations should be working together – if not to reverse the effects of climate change, then at least to slow down their advance.  Denial and short-termism are of course easier conditions of mind than grappling with the brutal reality that we have to change the way we live.  Yet change we must – and the responsibility lies with all of us, from the Head of State to the man or woman in the street.

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