Margaret Beckett: The US must join the world on climate change

Taken from a speech given by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in Washington DC
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The Independent Online

I fully recognise how much the recent terrible events are dominating the American and wider international scenes. So some might be surprised that at such a time a British minister comes to Washington to deliver a speech about environmental and trade issues. But it seems to me to be the right time.

The world changed – perhaps irrevocably – on 11 September. It was a wake-up call to all of us, not just to the dangers of terrorism, but to our mutual interdependence as a world community. In fact that interdependence had already been pointed up in another area – when we realised the impact human activity was having on our climate, and the impact climate change in turn has been having on our lives and livelihoods.

These issues of climate change, sustainable development and policy on agriculture are all of vital importance, laying down challenges to the international community as well as providing opportunities to make progress together towards a better world for all. These are global problems which in consequence require global solutions. At present this is a slogan. But we need to make the slogan a reality. We need everyone to commit themselves to practical action – a genuine investment of energy and resources – if we are to make tangible progress towards our shared objectives.

Climate change is an enormous challenge for every nation. There is new and even stronger evidence that most of the global warming of the last 50 years is due to human activity – that temperatures will continue to rise, and that this will affect us all. We can all expect more frequent extreme weather; rising sea levels and devastating floods; the spread of tropical diseases and the loss of biodiversity.

The poorest countries will be the worst affected because they will be least able to adapt – but all countries will suffer. So the evidence overwhelmingly points to the need for urgent, globally co-ordinated action.

No country can solve the problems of climate change on its own, any more than any individual can buy their own personal ozone layer. Inevitably, therefore, the Climate Change Convention and the Kyoto Protocol depend upon co-operation among nations. Recent events have shown how the international community can pull together in the face of a common threat.

Evidence of that wider recognition was displayed in Bonn in July and again in Marrakech last month – 170 countries signed up to the detailed legal text of the climate change programme, the wider principles of which were agreed at Kyoto. Agreement was not easily or lightly reached. All had to give for any to gain. And we all did.

But it seemed strange in Marrakech to be pressing ahead on a matter of such vital importance without the United States participating fully beside us. I welcome President Bush's recognition that climate change is a serious issue, and that further action is needed to reduce harmful emissions. I very much hope that the outcome of the Administration's policy review will be far-reaching domestic policies, compatible with the Kyoto framework. If the developed world takes positive action, there will be a much greater prospect of engaging developing countries on tackling their own contributions to climate change.

It is true that emissions from developing countries are growing quickly as their economies develop. But it is the developed world which has inevitably produced most of the man-made greenhouse gases currently in the atmosphere. And it is the cumulative effect of all these emissions that is causing the damage.

There are of course economic costs to taking such steps – whether through the Kyoto framework or otherwise. But the costs of acting now are tiny compared to the human and economic consequences that would follow inaction.

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