The war to end all wars

The climate change threat needs drastic action. Only a cross-party approach can deliver it.

  • Rosie Boycott
  • The Guardian,
  • Tuesday May 20 2008
  • Article history

About this article


This article appeared in the Guardian on Tuesday May 20 2008 on p28 of the Comment & debate section. It was last updated at 12:16 on May 20 2008.

How do you define a war? There is the disastrous one that Britain is waging in Iraq, involving tanks and guns and the lives of our young men and women. There is the kind the government claims it is waging variously against poverty, terror, and obesity. But the greatest threat to us all, global warming – a threat far greater than any airborne disease or foreign dictator – has yet to be elevated to war status. Day by day, before our eyes, the planet is deteriorating: ice caps are melting, weather systems shifting, and the poorest are finding themselves facing life-threatening water shortages. Our wildlife is suffering, species are being lost before our children even have a chance to witness them in all their beauty.

Britain, with 174 other countries, signed up to the Kyoto protocol, but while the government has made great political play of the fact that greenhouse gas emissions have decreased over the past decade, actual CO2 emissions have gone up. The only cuts that have been made have come from small, one-off technical fixes of things like landfill gas methane emissions. Labour might have great plans for cutting climate-changing gases, but most of its policies, from motorway widening to new runways, point in the opposite direction, and are actually worsening the situation.

As a group, some concerned mothers – myself among them- are coming together with their children this week because we want to leave our planet in much the same way as it was when we were born: rich, varied and able to support and feed us all. All across Britain, families are recycling waste, cutting back car use and giving up using plastic bags. But we know we are long past the time for small-time individual action – we need to direct a transition to a low-carbon economy. The government still seems to be terrified of motorists, frequent flyers and second home-owners, and is far too timid to take any measures that begin to address the scale of the problem. The targets in the climate-change bill are a good start, but there is no policy framework to actually achieve them – it is no good politicians saying each year, “Sorry, we failed”, as the world fries. The climate crisis must be our pre-eminent policy priority.

As the environmentalist Mark Lynas says: “We must peak global emissions by 2015 if we are to keep temperatures from rising beyond two degrees – after which point total climate catastrophe beckons, and that means international policy must be finalised by Copenhagen in 2009. The British government will have no political capital to demand cuts in countries like China when it is overseeing more coal-fired power stations and rising CO2 emissions at home.”

Last week MPs tabled a motion calling for immediate cross-party action on climate change. Their move comes as we launch a new campaign aimed at forcing the government to take the lead on tackling global warming. For many of those involved, it will be the first time they have taken political action. We call ourselves We Can (Can standing for Climate Action Now), and tonight we’ll be holding a candle-lit protest outside the House of Commons. During the evening, the children will deliver a letter to No 10 for Gordon Brown: it’s their future at stake here, not ours.

Climate change is too vital an issue to sacrifice to political infighting and cowardice. Clearly, it would be political suicide for any one party to introduce the changes needed, which is why a cross-party coalition should be formed (as during the second world war) to guide and direct both government planning and industry direction.

If his budget speech to the Commons is to be believed, Alistair Darling has made up his mind: climate change is the greatest challenge facing us all, and “there will be catastrophic economic and social consequences if we fail to act”. In response to this, with great determination and steely efficiency, the chancellor has utterly failed to act.

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in 1941, the US threw its might behind the war machine, transforming its industries overnight. The bounties of my entire life as a postwar baby have come as a direct result of that giant political will bending towards the common good. Now my daughter’s generation demands the same drastic intervention if they are to enjoy the same kind of future.

It can be done and we know the enemy. But where, on our increasingly fragile earth, is the leadership?

· Rosie Boycott is a writer and broadcaster

Our Very Own Gordon McBean – POV

POV – Point of View

Esteemed expertise often home-grown
Every community has its shining stars. Each city is blessed with plenty of them. Some rise to become premiers or prime ministers, or to the pinnacle of corporate power, making headlines around the world, bringing attention to their communities, and some work tirelessly and quietly and remain in the background but are no less important.

And every once in a while, one rises to prominence as a result of a confluence of events and activities, including unique expertise, good timing and hard work. These days, one of those people happens to be London’s Gordon McBean, a Nobel Prize-winning professor at the University of Western Ontario and the policy chair of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction.

He is Canada’s leading expert on global climate change and speaks regularly to international delegations exploring what North America will look like two decades from now.

A professor in Western’s departments of geography and political science, he is also a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international scientific body that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former U.S. vice-president Al Gore.

This week, McBean will be in Ottawa for North America 2030: An Environmental Outlook, a conference hosted by the Joint Public Advisory Committee of the Commission for Environmental Co-operation. He will talk about the implications of climate change on Canada and the Arctic, and the northern U.S.

Canada needs to prepare better for climate change; it needs a strategy, says McBean.

As well, McBean will present his research at various other conferences this summer, including those in Toronto; Halifax; Oslo, Norway; Davos, Switzerland; Kyoto, Japan; and Maputo, Mozambique.

To all of these gatherings, McBean will bring his unique expertise on what is perhaps this generation’s hottest (pardon the pun) and most important topic. Also, he will, like all of us, bring a London perspective and act as an unofficial ambassador for the city and for the university.

But in the end, it’s nice for those of us here to be reminded that there exists such esteemed expertise in our midst, and that we forget too often there are many others like him.

POSTED BY: Paul Berton, london
POSTED ON: June 24, 2008

The Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction

17 June 2008

London City Council

Subject: Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

I would like to provide the following comments in the context of the Drive-thru debate in the City of London.  Unfortunately, I am unable to be there to make these comments in person

I have been a climate scientist for over 30 years and have held faculty and senior governmental positions related to this topic.

I am pleased that the City of London has a Mayor’s Sustainable Energy Council, of which I am a member, and recently approved a $1.3-million study of London’s climate change strategy.  These demonstrate the concern and commitment of the City for the issue of climate change.

Climate science has demonstrated that the climate is changing and will continue to change over the rest of this century due to greenhouse gas emission from human activities – primarily the use of fossil fuels.  The magnitude of the change by mid-to-late century depends on total anthropogenic emissions.  New scientific information is demonstrating that dramatic reductions in emissions are needed to avoid dangerous climatic change.

One of the major contributors to Canada’s greenhouse gas emission total is road transportation.

I urge the City of London to consider and to take action on all ways of reducing emissions as part of national and global efforts to combat climate change.  This will also have the additional benefit of reducing urban smog which affects the health of Londoners and all Ontarians.

Respectfully submitted.

Gordon McBean, Ph.D., FRSC

Professor of Geography and Political Science

Director of Policy Studies, The Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction

The University of Western Ontario, London, Canada