Leading article: This flood of ideas has put the cynics and fatalists in the shade

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The Independent Online

The global warming debate launched by this newspaper earlier this week has already generated a stunning response. Hundreds of your submissions are pouring in every day, each bursting with ideas and opinions on what is perhaps the most fundamental challenge our planet has yet faced. This response has been heartening because it shows an increasing number of people - and not just in this country - engaging with the question of climate change as never before. It also serves as a powerful rebuke to the twin forces of fatalism and cynicism.

Those who are cynical about Britain's efforts to tackle climate change often make the point that this country is responsible for only 2 per cent of total global carbon emissions. They argue that this shows Britain does not bear much moral responsibility for the problem. But this is a grave misconception. Two per cent is a huge amount of C0 2 for a nation the size of Britain. Our total emissions are almost equal to those of the entire continent of Africa. If anything, we bear a rather heavier burden of responsibility than much of the rest of the world.

Fatalists are also fond of citing this 2 per cent figure. They argue that this shows Britain cannot make much of a difference on its own. The only solution, in their minds, is a multilateral agreement on capping global emissions - something they regard as unlikely considering the obstinacy of the United States on this front. In the meantime, they argue, there is no point in doing very much. But, again, this is misguided. What is to stop Britain becoming a leader in green growth? What is to stop us pioneering ways of increasing energy efficiency and utilising renewable power? Why can we not develop ways of using the tax system to change behaviour radically?

Both the fatalists and the cynics underestimate the power of persuasion. If Britain can prosper with a greener economy, others will follow. And the more people are made aware of the facts and implications of global warming, the more chance we have of slowing its process. There is a great deal of potential waiting to be mobilised in this cause, as the overwhelming response to our debate indicates.

Of course, global agreements such as Kyoto are crucial. But those of us in developed countries have a moral responsibility to take a lead. How can we persuade historically poorer nations such as China and India that they must grow in a sustainable manner if we do nothing to clean up our own act?

There has been a failure of leadership in this country. We note that two of our most prominent advocates of action to curtail climate change, Tony Blair and Prince Charles, have spent much of this week pumping out carbon into the upper atmosphere by flying. The prince is on a tour that has so far taken in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and India. Mr Blair has chosen to deliver three speeches in three different continents. Clearly world leaders need to use air travel. But like all of us, whether taking business trips or holidays, they need to consider whether their journeys are strictly necessary.

Public policy has been a failure too. The small print of Gordon Brown's supposedly "green" Budget last week anticipated the building of more runways in Britain. And the Government was forced to admit on Tuesday that its target of reducing UK emission levels 20 per cent below 1990 levels by the end of the decade will be missed. This admission is already being seen as something of a turning point.

The strongest theme in our global warming debate is that the political system is lagging behind public opinion. Our leaders seem to be faced with a stark choice: either they respond to a rising tide of opinion demanding urgent action or - in the end - be swept away by it.

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