Johann Hari: Don't call it climate change - it's chaos

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The Independent Online

But dire warnings from environmentalists - backed up by dire facts like this - have become a kind of political tinnitus: always there, always upsetting, always ignored. Yesterday, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released a report showing how Tony Blair's environmental policies is "becoming daily less discernable from those of George Bush". Already, it has been added to the tottering pile of similar warnings, waiting patiently to be recycled. Who will remember it next month, when there is another photogenic extreme weather event to coo at?

The WWF sensibly says we should stop using the strangely soothing label of "global warming". It makes these disasters sound like a planetary holiday in the Algarve. "Climate change" is even more innocuous, making people wonder what sort of retro-freak would be opposed to all change. No; we should use the more accurate term "climate chaos". We are destabilising the fragile balance of gases that has made settled human civilisation possible for the past 10,000 years; it's enough to give Ian MacAskill a nervous breakdown.

Once you absorb the risks, the day-to-day news agenda begins to look different. Tony Blair used to say climate chaos is "more dangerous than terrorism" - but if his policy on terror was as scrappy and fickle as his stance on the environment, he would be forced to resign. Imagine if he suddenly announced today, in an aside at a press conference, that the proposals for 90-day detention and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were a waste of time and he had never really believed in them. Imagine if No 10 press officers then scrambled for weeks to say this was a "misunderstanding" - only for Blair to repeat it a few weeks later.

These are precisely the political spasms that the Prime Minister has gone through on the question of Kyoto and its successor treaty, with the political class barely uttering a squeal of protest. After years of saying it was "essential" to have legal limits on emissions after Kyoto expires in 2012, he recently blithely declared that the idea "makes people nervous" and should be discarded in favour of "voluntary guidelines". He knows this would be worthless: his own voluntary targets of a 20 percent reduction in Britain's emissions by 2020 were binned with a blush this year. After calling climate chaos "so far-reaching in its impact and irreversible in its destructive power that it alters radically human existence", he is now proposing to do virtually nothing about it. The chaos isn't only in the climate: it is in Blair's own mind.

Or look at last week's visit to London by Chinese dictator Hu Jintao. China's role in fuelling climate chaos is huge and growing. Within 20 years, its net greenhouse gas emissions are set to trump even those of the US and Britain (albeit with a much larger population, so lower emissions per person). Even as they chafe under a cruel police state, the Chinese people are surprisingly active on this issue, because they can see their environment changing around them in bewildering ways. This year alone, the country's deserts expanded by an area larger than the whole of Britain, and 300,000 Chinese people died prematurely of respiratory diseases as a result of pollution.

That's why environmentalist riots are now a regular occurrence in Hu's homeland. This April, for example, 50,000 people rioted in Huaxi in south-eastern China because nearby factories were pumping out unbearable pollution. One villager, Wang Yuhe, explained, "The air stinks now. We can't grow our crops."

So you would expect Blair to make this the main issue he discussed with Hu. Instead, on the biggest issue in the world, he had nothing coherent to say - and it showed. Even if the voluntary emissions he is urging on the Chinese were worth the paper they are written on, the problem is that we are currently in no position to tell poorer nations what to do. You cannot sit on a flight to New York and cluck at a Chinese peasant for getting his first rickety motor. If we are not prepared to begin kicking the carbon habit from a position of incredible wealth, we shouldn't be surprised when others living hand to mouth begin sucking on an exhaust pipe of their own.

There is only one way we can realistically restrain China's carbon emissions and prevent global carbon emissions that will make today's climate chaos look like drizzle. It is called 'Contraction and Convergence (C&C), and it was first formulated by Aubrey Meyer of Global Commons Institute. Meyer's plan is disarmingly simple. The world's climatologists have figured out the amount of carbon emissions the world can stand if the climate is to hold steady at current temperatures - and it's roughly 60 per cent lower than we pump out right now. Under C&C, this would be designated as mankind's "carbon budget", and each person would be allocated an equal share to use as they wish. At the moment, there are extreme inequalities in the way we draw on the budget - the average Brit burns up more fossil fuels in a day than a Tanzanian family uses in a year. 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. It's going to be tough - but if we don't all stand together in a C&C framework, the climate may not stand us for another century.

But instead of scurrying towards this shelter - the only sensible proposal we have - we are drifting towards a global carbon free-for-all. Last week, Hu flew out of a country with an incoherent environmental policy, rising C02 emissions, and a Prime Minister who sees no need for a post-Kyoto Treaty. Would anybody be surprised if he took this as a (not very) green light to keep on polluting?

As China's petrol fumes still hang in the air, this is a particularly dumb time for Blair to toss yesterday's WWF report on to the carbon bonfire. What we choose to do about these scientific warnings will answer a fundamental question about human beings. Are we a rational species, capable of understanding the damage we are doing and acting in our own self-defence - or are we addled hedonists, too high on our fumes to see the truth?