Leading Article: So, what will we do about global warming?

YESTERDAY, WE reported that the danger of rising sea levels from the melting of Antarctica may be greater than previously thought. A four- year research programme to measure the thickness of the ice sheet suggests that the loss of land to the sea in the next century is likely to be greater than so far forecast.

This disturbing piece of news prompted immediate and resolute action on the part of the Government. Michael Meacher was sent into the Today programme studio. The Environment Minister pulled no punches. He warned that the effects of global warming on Britain would go much further than the loss of East Anglia to the rising oceans.

Severe droughts, which used to be rare, would become frequent, and clean water would be in short supply. The South-East would become "arid", while the North-West would be colder and wetter. Perhaps this is why Labour is no longer going to Blackpool for its conferences; but, as ever, John Humphrys did not bother Mr Meacher with such trivia. Instead he went straight to the intellectual heart of the problem and asked: "So, what are you going to do about it?" "Oh," said Mr Meacher, decisively. "We've got a consultation paper coming out shortly."

That's all right, then. The skies will rain frogs and toads, there will be darkness over the land and the rivers will flow with blood; plague, pestilence and various horsemen will be visited upon our blighted island. Meanwhile Mr Meacher will be taking soundings at the TUC, listening to the compliance problems of small businesses and the self-employed and urgently considering a range of options.

All right, we can mock. Global warming is a complicated issue, and many of the effects can only be guessed at.

Several effects cancel each other out, and so for some time studies have disagreed over whether somewhere like Britain will become colder, warmer or - as Mr Meacher suggested - both at once. But one thing is not in doubt, and that is that the energy use of a growing world population has changed the world's climate a little and will change it a lot in the next century.

If the latest predictions are right, this will have alarming consequences for Britain, not least for the North-South divide.

What will it mean for our culture for the South-East to acquire a Tuscan climate? Will it change the playing style of English football? Will it vindicate Channel 4's decision to buy up rights to broadcast cricket, which will become a year-round game on every patch of dusty open space? Will a switch from beer to (English) wine mean the end of lager loutishness? Will London at last get its own version of outdoor Continental cafe life or just get its feet wet?

And what about Liverpool, with its cold western-Irish style climate? Will they take to Guinness and the single transferable vote? Will Scotland become a nation of healthy, efficient Scandinavians with liberal attitudes to sex if Edinburgh is frozen solid all year round?

This is, of course, in the realm of pointless speculation. But global warming is a fact. Whatever the unpredictable effects, all industrialised countries need to use less energy. And the only way to achieve that fairly and efficiently is to increase its price. This does not require consultation. It requires plain speaking from Mr Meacher and - above all - action.