Copenhagen climate change conference: 'Fourteen days to seal history's judgment on this generation'

Today 56 newspapers in 45 countries take the unprecedented step of speaking with one voice through a common editorial. We do so because humanity faces a profound emergency.

Unless we combine to take decisive action, climate change will ravage our planet, and with it our prosperity and security. The dangers have been becoming apparent for a generation. Now the facts have started to speak: 11 of the past 14 years have been the warmest on record, the Arctic ice-cap is melting and last year's inflamed oil and food prices provide a foretaste of future havoc. In scientific journals the question is no longer whether humans are to blame, but how little time we have got left to limit the damage. Yet so far the world's response has been feeble and half-hearted.

Climate change has been caused over centuries, has consequences that will endure for all time and our prospects of taming it will be determined in the next 14 days. We call on the representatives of the 192 countries gathered in Copenhagen not to hesitate, not to fall into dispute, not to blame each other but to seize opportunity from the greatest modern failure of politics. This should not be a fight between the rich world and the poor world, or between east and west. Climate change affects everyone, and must be solved by everyone.

The science is complex but the facts are clear. The world needs to take steps to limit temperature rises to 2C, an aim that will require global emissions to peak and begin falling within the next 5-10 years. A bigger rise of 3-4C — the smallest increase we can prudently expect to follow inaction — would parch continents, turning farmland into desert. Half of all species could become extinct, untold millions of people would be displaced, whole nations drowned by the sea. The controversy over emails by British researchers that suggest they tried to suppress inconvenient data has muddied the waters but failed to dent the mass of evidence on which these predictions are based.

Few believe that Copenhagen can any longer produce a fully polished treaty; real progress towards one could only begin with the arrival of President Obama in the White House and the reversal of years of US obstructionism. Even now the world finds itself at the mercy of American domestic politics, for the president cannot fully commit to the action required until the US Congress has done so.

But the politicians in Copenhagen can and must agree the essential elements of a fair and effective deal and, crucially, a firm timetable for turning it into a treaty. Next June's UN climate meeting in Bonn should be their deadline. As one negotiator put it: "We can go into extra time but we can't afford a replay."

At the deal's heart must be a settlement between the rich world and the developing world covering how the burden of fighting climate change will be divided — and how we will share a newly precious resource: the trillion or so tonnes of carbon that we can emit before the mercury rises to dangerous levels.

Rich nations like to point to the arithmetic truth that there can be no solution until developing giants such as China take more radical steps than they have so far. But the rich world is responsible for most of the accumulated carbon in the atmosphere – three-quarters of all carbon dioxide emitted since 1850. It must now take a lead, and every developed country must commit to deep cuts which will reduce their emissions within a decade to very substantially less than their 1990 level.

Developing countries can point out they did not cause the bulk of the problem, and also that the poorest regions of the world will be hardest hit. But they will increasingly contribute to warming, and must thus pledge meaningful and quantifiable action of their own. Though both fell short of what some had hoped for, the recent commitments to emissions targets by the world's biggest polluters, the United States and China, were important steps in the right direction.

Social justice demands that the industrialised world digs deep into its pockets and pledges cash to help poorer countries adapt to climate change, and clean technologies to enable them to grow economically without growing their emissions. The architecture of a future treaty must also be pinned down – with rigorous multilateral monitoring, fair rewards for protecting forests, and the credible assessment of "exported emissions" so that the burden can eventually be more equitably shared between those who produce polluting products and those who consume them. And fairness requires that the burden placed on individual developed countries should take into account their ability to bear it; for instance newer EU members, often much poorer than "old Europe", must not suffer more than their richer partners.

The transformation will be costly, but many times less than the bill for bailing out global finance — and far less costly than the consequences of doing nothing.

Many of us, particularly in the developed world, will have to change our lifestyles. The era of flights that cost less than the taxi ride to the airport is drawing to a close. We will have to shop, eat and travel more intelligently. We will have to pay more for our energy, and use less of it.

But the shift to a low-carbon society holds out the prospect of more opportunity than sacrifice. Already some countries have recognized that embracing the transformation can bring growth, jobs and better quality lives. The flow of capital tells its own story: last year for the first time more was invested in renewable forms of energy than producing electricity from fossil fuels.

Kicking our carbon habit within a few short decades will require a feat of engineering and innovation to match anything in our history. But whereas putting a man on the moon or splitting the atom were born of conflict and competition, the coming carbon race must be driven by a collaborative effort to achieve collective salvation.

Overcoming climate change will take a triumph of optimism over pessimism, of vision over short-sightedness, of what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature".

It is in that spirit that 56 newspapers from around the world have united behind this editorial. If we, with such different national and political perspectives, can agree on what must be done then surely our leaders can too.

The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history's judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it. We implore them to make the right choice.

This editorial will be published tomorrow by 56 newspapers around the world in 20 languages including Chinese, Arabic and Russian. The text was drafted by a Guardian team during more than a month of consultations with editors from more than 20 of the papers involved. Like the Guardian most of the newspapers have taken the unusual step of featuring the editorial on their front page.




Dec 7, 2009 at 11:16am

As a paleogeneticist who knows climatology, let me assure readers that no science at all lies behind the alarmism. Here are the facts:
1. Temperature has been measured at spots on Earth only for the past 150 years, during which urban site shows a small (0.7 C) rise in temperature. Data from rural sites does not. Thus, much of the reported rise is due to urbanization; it is not "settled " that the Earth actually warmed over the past century more than measurement error.
2. Even if, this rise is small compared with earlier natural variation. Temperature swings from the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) to the Little Ice Age (LIA) were larger; swings in the Ice Ages were much larger. On the past 40 million years, temperature fell by 17 degrees.
3. What causes global climate to change? No one knows. Climate change is natural; it is possible that today's small warming is natural.
4. Why does the IPCC say that "settled science" implicates human CO2 release? Scientific cultures acquire a "paradigm", a view of the world that excludes dissent, admits data that fit, and ignores data that contradict. Well-trained scientists know this: As Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman noted, science is "the belief in the ignorance of experts." Normally, science is "self-correcting". Climatology has avoided self-correction, however, because politicians such as Al Gore intervened in an interesting scientific debate, declared a "winner", and persuaded Hollywood.
5. Does this mean that human-generated CO2 is NOT a problem? Of course not. CO2 is a greenhouse gas. The amount of CO2 has increased. Human CO2 should add to temperature.
6. Will CO2 create global temperature catastrophe? By itself, no. There is too little human CO2 to raise temperature much. To get catastrophe, positive feedbacks must amplify the small rise in temperature caused by human CO2. For example, if a small rise caused by human CO2 causes white ice (which reflects sunlight) to melt, it will expose a dark underlying ocean, which will absorb more heat from the Sun, causing temperature to rise more, and so on. Slight warming might release methane in permafrost. Slight warming might cause more water to evaporate. Water vapor and methane are excellent greenhouse gases.
7. Might negative feedbacks have the reverse effect? Yes. For example, if water evaporates, it forms low clouds. Low clouds are white, reflect sunlight back into space, and produce cooling, damping the CO2-caused warming.
8. Can computer models sort this out? No. The models behind the IPCC reports are formally wrong, have not predicted any future event, and have not retrodicted any past event for which they were not tuned. The famous hockey stick model (see Gore's movie) is wrong because of a wrong a "principal component analysis." Last month, Mann published another model (Science 326, 1256 Nov. 27, 2009). The "hockey stick" is now gone; the MWP and the LIA are back.
9. Can history help predict? Yes. In the MWP, temperatures were as high as now. Polar ice melted. If positive feedbacks dominate, if methane had been released from the permafrost, if water vapor increased, a global temperature catastrophe should have followed, if the models are correct. But it did not. Instead, the Little Ice Age followed. Why? We do not know. But the models must be wrong.
10. OK, so IPCC is corrupt. But does its corruption "dent the mass of evidence"? As noted, there is no "mass of evidence" to suggest that present temperatures are unprecedented, or that human-generated CO2 is a hazard, or that failure to enact cap-and-trade will parch continents, drive species into extinction, and drown whole nations. There never was. But culture trumps fact and logic, as these editorials show. Editors will continue to push cap-and-trade long after the few scientist-advocates who persuaded them originally have been refuted.

err on the side of caution

Dec 7, 2009 at 9:35pm

As a layperson I am inclined to believe that we have to take drastic global action to reduce greenhouse gas emmissions. There are a number of people out there who are saying global warming, either is not happening or if it is, that it is normal, and of course yet others who say this is entirely a fraud.

So if we choose to do nothing and the climate rises we will have to deal with the dire consequences of billions of people having to migrate, entire industries particularly agricultural will be wipe out, and all kinds of social, political, and economic issues that will have a global impact.

If we do agree to address this as a real issue and collectively work together what are the consequences? Stopping global warming, helping underdeveloped nations build their economies and nations.

Seems to me that we should not take a chance.