Tom Burke: War passes: the climate is for ever

We humans are better at dealing with crises than long-term problems. The future could judge us harshly

This is arguably the first week of the most important year in human history. The grandiose invites suspicion so that sentence was written reluctantly. Ideas do not seek permission before they enter your mind, nor are they always the most welcome of guests.

This idea was prompted by the new year headlines. War and recession, tragically familiar sources of human misery, dominated. Yet it was what was missing from them that provoked my unwelcome thought. In December, a meeting on an issue far more important to the future prosperity and security of everyone on earth will take place in Copenhagen. Yet, nowhere did its prospects make the front pages. Terrible though they are, war and recession pass. Climate change is for ever.

The reason is the unique nature of the climate problem. We know that climate change is a threat to the fragile film of order we humans have built around the chaos of events and call "civilisation". We know, because Europe's political leaders told us, that a rise in global average temperature of more than two degrees Celsius is dangerous. We know from our scientists that greenhouse gas emissions must be moving downwards globally by 2015 if we are to have any chance at all of staying within that limit.

Once a given concentration of carbon is in the atmosphere the climate it drives is inexorable even if it takes decades or more to fully express itself. In the most literal sense, the sins of the fathers will be visited on their sons and daughters and well beyond the third and fourth generation.

We humans do not learn easily. We try and fail and try again. Our progress is incremental. We are prone to repeating mistakes. We are content to let the future redeem the mistakes of the present. Climate change does not suit us. We have little experience with the irrevocable and dislike exacting time limits. The nature of the climate is such that the future cannot redeem today's mistakes. We have one chance to reach a political agreement to reduce global carbon emissions in time to stay safe. This is the year in which we take that chance.

Compared with the diplomatic effort needed to achieve success in Copenhagen, that required for a final settlement in the Middle East is small. But there is no sign that an effort on the required scale is yet being made. Compare the amount of media coverage, and intensity of political effort, given to the Middle East to that accorded to climate change.

This is not to diminish in any way the magnitude of that tragedy nor to argue that less should be done to address it. It is, rather, to point out the classic human error of allowing the more immediate to obscure the more urgent. History does not have an agenda on which items can be prioritised. Either you deal with the events it throws at you or they deal with you.

None of the leaders will want to come away from Copenhagen saying they failed to solve a problem they have recognised as the most serious facing humanity. But the appearance of success will be easier to achieve than the substance. It will consist of words and the less the success the more interpretable the words.

To get emissions on a downward path by 2015, 200 nations must agree to so coordinate their energy policies as to build a carbon neutral global energy system by 2050. This will require the greatest cooperative endeavour in history. Agreement in Copenhagen is the key to the lock on the door to that 40-year endeavour. The political conditions needed to turn that key are not yet there. We have this year to build them.

US president-elect Barack Obama has pointed the way by proposing a stimulus package that will deliver economic, energy and climate security together. If in the European Union and China stimulus packages are similarly well designed then $1.5 trillion (£1 trillion) will be spent in ways which will begin the transition to a low-carbon energy system.

Most of the world has played a far smaller part than the countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in creating the problem. Their reluctance to act is understandable, if unwise. Without significant financial help from the OECD countries to meet the cost of adapting to climate change, and to help with building low-carbon economies, they will be unable to support the necessary agreement. We are talking tens of billions not millions.

Words will matter too. But the words that will count most are those of political leaders not official negotiators. Count the number of times a month presidents and foreign ministers are in the media talking about climate change. Note the number of times they hold press conferences on the issue. If they are not going up month by month, we are failing.

Climate change is a bad problem that is getting worse. Pretty soon it will become unmanageable. We already have both the technology and the capital to solve this problem. What is uncertain, and will be determined this year, is whether we have the political will to do so.

I grew up in a world engaged in another long-term, large-scale cooperative endeavour. It spent billions of dollars on building weapons it hoped never to use. When they became obsolete it threw them away and built even more sophisticated and expensive weapons which it hoped never to use. We did that for 50 years. Eventually the world did become safer. The threat of climate change to the prosperity, security and well-being of everyone on the planet, especially anyone under 40, is far more certain than was the threat of the Cold War going hot. Maintaining climate security in the 21st century will require at least as big an effort as maintaining peace did in the late 20th century.

Tom Burke is a co-founder of E3G and a visiting professor at Imperial and University colleges, London

John Rentoul is away

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