Climate change in 2009: the defining issue

In an open letter, I argue that the more immediate should not obscure the more urgent. Climate change must be at the forefront of the international agenda in 2009. Published in openDemocracy on 15 January 2009

A version of this letter was published in the Independent on Sunday, 4 January 2009.

My dear friends,

I am writing this letter to you because today is arguably the first day of the most important year in human history. I dislike the grandiose so the previous sentence was written reluctantly. Ideas do not seek permission before they enter your mind and they are not always the most welcome of guests.

The idea that this is the most important year in human history has been haunting me since yesterday. It was prompted by an article in the Financial Times in which the paper’s columnists made predictions about the most important issues facing the world in 2009. Bravely, they passed judgement on the likelihood of everything from an early election in the United Kingdom (no) to the bombing of Iran; from the price of oil (higher) to the fall of Mugabe.

But it was what they did not say that really caught my attention. This was much reinforced by a cartoon in today’s Guardian in which he pictured a rather cheerful looking Mr Earth holding an Obama balloon. Round his ankles were tied three balls and chain labelled “War”, “Recession” and “Climate Change”. The Financial Times dealt well with two of them. But it had nothing to say about climate change.

Yet, in December 2009, a meeting far more important than war or recession to the future prosperity and security of all seven billion of us will take place in Copenhagen. We know that, terrible though consequences of war and recession are, they pass. Climate change is for ever.

In the same issue of the Guardian, Brian Eno wrote about the difference between a world which people feel could be a “better place” and one they feel to be a “nightmare of desperation, fear and suspicion”. In the latter world, “freeloaders and brigands and pirates and cheats will take control.” Do not overlook, in all the talk of the rising sea-levels, melting ice-caps, droughts, floods, fires and diseases that will be the markers of a rapidly changing climate, the fact that riding along with them will be the freeloaders, brigands, pirates and cheats.

Brian Eno was writing, as Martin Wolf and Timothy Garton Ash have also done recently, about the impact on politics of shifting from a world of abundance to one of scarcity. There is nothing in our knowledge of a world without a stable climate to lead us to believe a changing climate will shift it back.

History is punctuated by the names of the places where order was restored after chaos prevailed: Westphalia, Versailles, San Francisco. It is not an exaggeration to say that the implications of what happens – or does not – in Copenhagen in December will do more to shape human destiny for longer than any of them.

The reason for this is the unique nature of the climate as a human problem. We know that dangerous climate change is a threat to the fragile film of order that we humans have built around the chaos of events and call “civilisation”. We know that a rise in global average temperature of more than two degrees Celsius is extremely 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 staving off a two degree rise.

The climate is such that we cannot rely on the future to redeem today’s mistakes. Once a given concentration of carbon is in the atmosphere, the change 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 indeed be visited on the sons, and well beyond the third and fourth generations.

We humans do not learn easily. We try and fail and try again. Our progress is incremental and we are prone to repeating our mistakes. We are too often 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. We have one chance and one chance only to get this problem right and this is the year in which we take that chance.

You could be forgiven, along with the Financial Times, for having missed this point. Compared to the diplomatic effort needed to achieve success in Copenhagen, that required for a final settlement in the middle east is small. But there is little sign that an effort of the required level of ambition is yet being made. One need only 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. As George Canning once remarked, “If something be not done, it will do itself and in a way that pleases no-one.”

No-one will come away from Copenhagen saying they failed to solve the most serious problem facing humanity. But the appearance of success will be easier to achieve than real substance. The outcome of Copenhagen will consist of words, and the less the success the more interpretable the words.

To succeed, two hundred nations must agree to so coordinate their energy policies as to build a carbon neutral global energy system by 2050 at the latest. The political pre-conditions for achieving such an agreement in Copenhagen are simply not in place yet. We have this year to build them.

The world is oversupplied with words and images. It is very short of deeds. The gap between rhetoric and action in even the most serious of nations is so wide as to justify much scepticism. Without clear signs of that gap closing, the political conditions for an ambitious enough agreement in Copenhagen will remain elusive.

There are three questions to keep asking. First, have the EU and China joined the US in shaping their economic stimulus spending so as to reduce dependence on fossil fuels dramatically? Second, are there billions of real dollars of additional funding available to pay for the adaptation to the consequences of the climate change to which we have already committed the world? Third, are the Foreign, Energy and Environment Ministers of the world spending more time on climate change than on anything else?

Postive answers to these questions are not, by a long way, guarantors of success, but they would be signs of an effort commensurate with the scale of the threat. We know that effort on this scale is possible if the political will can be found.

I grew up in a world that spent billions of dollars on building weapons it hoped never to use. When they became obsolete we threw them away and built even more sophisticated and expensive weapons which we hoped never to use. We did that for fifty years. The threat of climate change to the prosperity, security and well-being of everyone on the planet, especially anyone under forty, is far more certain than was the threat of the Cold War going hot.

I will spend much of the year working to build the political conditions necessary for real success in Copenhagen. It would help me, if you had the time and inclination, to know what you think. Am I being too gloomy? Have I got things out of proportion? Are there considerations I have overlooked? Am I looking for answers in the wrong place? Should I have more faith in politicians?

With respect and affection as ever,


About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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