A slap in the face for our political stupidity

It's very easy for environmentalists to despair, but the Greens remind us there are solutions to this crisis
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The Independent Online

When the history books are written in a far warmer world, this general election campaign will seem like a holiday from reality.

When the history books are written in a far warmer world, this general election campaign will seem like a holiday from reality.

While it's comforting (and essential) to rant about George Bush's refusal to sign the Kyoto Treaty, we need to face our own responsibility too. In the middle of a global crisis, Britain is still one of the world's worst polluters. For all of Tony Blair's apparent concern on this issue, this country's carbon emissions - yours and mine - increased last year, and they are still higher than they were in 1997. One of the Government's most senior scientists - John Lawton - says simply: "The world is heading towards massive climatic change. I have become extremely worried about it. In fact, I am terrified."

So what are our leaders sound-biting about? Immigration, dirty hospitals, gypsies. All worth discussing - but they are the tiniest dribble of sweat compared to global sweltering.

The launch of the Green Party's manifesto yesterday was an essential slap in the face for our political stupidity.We must listen to them because, right now, we are trapped in the world of "autistic economics". Like Dustin Hoffman in Rainman, our economists are intelligent, narrowly focused and cut off from whole dimensions of life. When they look at the economy, they can see a narrow range of figures - inflation, GDP, growth - but their tidy spreadsheets do not include the massive envir- onmental destruction that lies behind economic indicators.

It doesn't have to be like this. Environmentally sane people need to fight for a shift to "true-cost economics", where environmental damage is as important a factor in guiding our decisions as signals from the marketplace.

It's very easy for environmentalists to despair, but the Greens remind us there is a solution to this crisis (even if they do give it the excruciatingly boring name of "Contraction and Convergence"). The world's climate scientists have now determined a safe level of carbon emissions for humanity, roughly 60 per cent lower than present levels. This should be declared to be mankind's "budget", beyond which we risk disaster. Each country can then be allocated a fair share of the global carbon budget, according to the size of its population and its need for artificial heating.

At the moment, there are gross inequalities in the way we draw on the budget - Britain takes far more than its fair share, for one. That's why there would have to be a transition period - say, 40 years - when rich countries would contract their emissions, poorer countries would increase theirs, and eventually we converge on safe levels.

Yes, this would require huge upheavals in the way we live - but even more huge (and deadly) upheavals will come if we do not deal with climate change. Our governments will not spontaneously do the right thing - it's up to us to force them. So how can we send a signal in this election that we - some of the worst polluters - want to choose environmental sanity over disaster? In the vast majority of constituencies, I think protest voting against Labour is - thanks to our lousy electoral system - pretty self-indulgent, because it risks splitting the left vote and letting in Conservatives who will be worse on every issue, including climate change.

But there are two parliamentary seats in the looming election where a vote for the Greens might be more than a protest: Brighton Pavillion and Brighton Kemptown. The Greens already hold the overall balance of power on the local council, and they represent the area in the European Parliament after they pushed Labour into third place at last year's European elections.

The election of Britain's first Green Party MP would make a tangible difference: on 6 May, every Labour MP would begin nervously to swot up on climate change. In 1989, the Green Party had a surprising win in the European elections and it forced even the Conservatives to treat the Rio Earth Summit much more seriously.

In Germany, there are more Green parliamentarians than anywhere else in the world - and they have the highest level of renewable energy of any nation. One of the best arguments for proportional representation is that it would guarantee a constant Green presence in British politics and might lever us in the right direction before it's too late.

In three weeks, most decent people have an obligation to vote Labour through gritted teeth for fear of something much worse. The lucky people of Brighton are blessed with the option of turning green in the polling booth. Unless all the parties become more green soon, it's going to become pretty hot in here.