political leaders have one duty above all
others, it is to protect the security of their
people. Thus it was, according to the prime
minister, to protect Britain's security against
Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction
that this country went to war in Iraq. And
yet our long-term security is threatened by
a problem at least as dangerous as chemical,
nuclear or biological weapons, or indeed international
terrorism: human-induced climate change.
a climate scientist who has worked on this
issue for several decades, first as head of
the Met Office, and then as co-chair of scientific
assessment for the UN intergovernmental panel
on climate change, the impacts of global warming
are such that I have no hesitation in describing
it as a "weapon of mass destruction".
terrorism, this weapon knows no boundaries.
It can strike anywhere, in any form - a heat
wave in one place, a drought or a flood or
a storm surge in another. Nor is this just
a problem for the future. The 1990s were probably
the warmest decade in the last 1,000 years,
and 1998 the warmest year. Global warming
is already upon us.
World Meteorological Organization warned this
month that extreme weather events already
seem to be becoming more frequent as a result.
The US mainland was struck by 562 tornados
in May (which incidentally saw the highest
land temperatures globally since records began
in 1880), killing 41 people. The developing
world is the hardest hit: extremes of climate
tend to be more intense at low latitudes and
poorer countries are less able to cope with
disasters. Pre-monsoon temperatures this year
in India reached a blistering 49C (120F) -
5C (9F) above normal.
this killer heat wave began to abate, 1,500
people lay dead - half the number killed outright
in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade
Center. While no one can ascribe a single
weather event to climate change with any degree
of scientific certainty, higher maximum temperatures
are one of the most predictable impacts of
accelerated global warming, and the parallels
- between global climate change and global
terrorism - are becoming increasingly obvious.
his credit, Tony Blair has - rhetorically,
at least - begun to face up to this. In a
recent speech he stated clearly that "there
can be no genuine security if the planet is
ravaged by climate change". But words are
not enough. They have to be matched with adequate
action. The recent announcement of a large-scale
offshore wind generating program was welcome,
but the UK still lags far behind other European
countries in developing renewables capacity.
latest report on energy and climate change
by the royal commission on environmental pollution
addressed the much more demanding global reductions
in greenhouse gas emissions that will be required
over the next 50 years (in addition to the
Kyoto agreement) and how these could be achieved.
Given that the UK needs to take its share
of the global burden the commission recommended
that we should aim for a cut in these emissions
of 60% by 2050.
also pointed out the urgent need for an adequate
mechanism for negotiating each country's emission
target and advocated a globally implemented
plan known as "contraction and convergence".
The energy white paper published earlier this
year accepted the royal commission's 60% reduction
target, but it is disturbing that it provided
no clarity on UK policy regarding the framework
for international negotiation.
successful international negotiation for reducing
emissions must be based on four principles:
the precautionary principle, the principle
of sustainable development, the polluter-pays
principle and the principle of equity. The
strength of "contraction and convergence"
is that it satisfies all these principles.
But it also means facing up to some difficult
world leaders have to agree on a target for
the stabilization of greenhouse gases in the
atmosphere at a sufficiently low level to
stave off dangerous climate change. Second,
this target, and the global greenhouse gas
budget it implies, has to form the framework
for an equitable global distribution of emissions
permits, assigned to different countries on
a per-capita basis. Countries with the largest
populations will therefore get the most permits,
but for the sake of efficiency and to achieve
economic convergence these permits will need
to be internationally tradable.
is the only solution likely to be acceptable
to most of the developing world, which unlike
us has not had the benefit of over a century
of fossil fuel-driven economic prosperity.
And it also meets one of the key demands of
the United States, that developing countries
should not be excluded from emissions targets,
as they currently are under the Kyoto protocol.
everyone knows that the US is the world's
biggest polluter, and that with only one 20th
of the world's population it produces a quarter
of its greenhouse gas emissions. But the US
government, in an abdication of leadership
of epic proportions, is refusing to take the
problem seriously - and Britain, presumably
because Blair wishes not to offend George
Bush - is beginning to fall behind too. Emissions
from the US are up 14% on those in 1990 and
are projected to rise by a further 12% over
the next decade.
is vital that Russia now ratifies the Kyoto
protocol so that it can at last come into
force. But while the US refuses to cooperate,
it is difficult to see how the rest of the
world can make much progress on the much tougher
longer-term agreements that will be necessary
after Kyoto's mandate runs out in 2012.
does the latest science provide any comfort.
The intergovernmental panel on climate change
has warned of 1.4C to 5.8C (2.5F to 10.4F)
temperature rises by 2100. This already implies
massive changes in climate, and yet the current
worst-case scenarios emerging from the Met
Office's Hadley Center. envisage even greater
rises than this - a degree and speed of global
warming the consequences of which are hard
to quantify or even imagine.
Blair has a challenge. The world needs leadership,
and the British prime minister is well placed
to stand at the head of a new "coalition of
the willing" to tackle this urgent problem.
He is also uniquely placed to persuade Bush
to join in this effort, given their joint
commitment to making the world safe from "weapons
of mass destruction".
even if he fails to persuade him, there are
other allies who would still respond to his
leadership - even if this means opposing the
US until such time as it no longer has an
oilman for president. If Blair were to assume
this mantle, history might not only forgive
him, but will also endorse Britain's contribution
to long-term global security.
Sir John Houghton was formerly chief executive
of the Meteorological Office and co-chair
of the scientific assessment working group
of the intergovernmental panel on climate
change. He is the author of 'Global Warming:
the Complete Briefing'.
Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003
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