Leading article: Answers needed at Lyon conference

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The Independent Online

There are are still large sections of the general population determined to stick their heads in the sand rather than confront the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is not some vague hypothesis but a grim present reality. But the world's leading scientists are convinced. So much so that, in many ways, concern for the environment has largely become concern about climate change. In one sense this is quite right, for the tipping point to avert disaster is coming rapidly upon us, if indeed it is not already here. There is no more urgent issue for action, international, national and local.

But this apocalyptic preoccupation has a downside. It has displaced debate on other issues about how we best live on this planet with a lighter footprint, about how we provide for the needs of today without storing up an ever-accumulating bill to be paid by our children and grandchildren. A decade ago, the big ecological issue was how we can live sustainably. Today it has become the great forgotten question.

To bring it back into the spotlight The Independent, along with our French and Italian counterparts, the newspapers Libération and La Repubblica, is sponsoring a three-day brainstorm which begins in Lyon today. It brings together politicians, environmental scientists and heads of business from across Europe to debate the present and future of our planet.

Some of the conversations that will take place are philosophical. Are there any universal values? Should we stop the rich from getting richer? Does religion make us better environmentalists? But others are very specific. Can we do without nuclear power or genetically modified foods? Is there a threat to our drinking water? How can we improve the carbon footprint of towns?

Other debates will question the roles and special interests of particular social and geographical sectors. How can businesses be more environmentally friendly? Is corporate social responsibility a sham? Can we find well-being at work? What future for retired people? How can we reconcile the social and environmental interests of the rich and poor worlds? Will the West's looming age of austerity be good or bad for the environment? Is economic growth the answer or the problem?

The solutions on offer may not be simple. Some may even be mutually contradictory. But declining to face up to questions of competing rights and priorities would lead us down a road to oblivion. That is why we will be reporting in detail on the outcomes of the Lyon discussions in the days to come.