Rowan Williams Guardian/UK 9 September 2014
The past year has seen the obstacles blocking action on climate change beginning to crumble. Opposition on scientific grounds looks pretty unpersuasive in the light of what has come from the experts on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Their seven-year study states that they are now 95% certain that human activity is a significant and avoidable element in driving climate change around the world. Predicted changes in the climate are now being observed in the most vulnerable countries, confirming the predictive models that have been used.
The suggestion that action on this would have too great an economic cost is likewise looking shaky. This month the New Climate Economy report will be published by a global commission, including Felipe Calderón, the former president of Mexico; Paul Polman, the chief executive of Unilever; the economist Nicholas Stern; and Chad Holloway, the chairman of the Bank of America – as well as a substantial number of finance ministers from around the world. This report will show that action on climate change is entirely compatible with economic growth in almost all countries and that the economic benefits, both short and long term, will outweigh the costs.
It will reinforce the findings of a report published last October by a group of financial heavyweights outlining the threat to US businesses of doing nothing. Risky Business – by former US treasury secretaries Hank Paulson, Robert Rubin and George Schultz; Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York; and the billionaire investor Thomas Steyer – argued, purely on economic grounds, that ignoring the challenge is folly.
Another stumbling block that is also beginning to disappear is political inertia. Politicians have constantly been tempted to kick this particular can down the road. But President Obama, having spoken powerfully about the need for action, is now backing up his rhetoric with legislation limiting carbon emissions from US power plants. There are similarly encouraging signs in China, where lethal levels of atmospheric pollution, especially in cities, have at last goaded the government to start to move in the right direction.
With actors who have traditionally dragged their feet taking the lead, and with the urgency for action in developing nations beyond any serious doubt, it is now those who have traditionally been more proactive – European nations in particular – who need to step up to the mark.
The hope is that the New York summit of world leaders on 23 September, at which climate change will take centre stage, will be the next major prompt to agreed action. Hosted by the UN secretary general, this meeting will show the real leaders in responding to climate change, and should kick-start negotiations ahead of the crucial UN climate summit in Paris in December next year which must decide on limiting greenhouse gas emissions. David Cameron became prime minister on the promise of “Vote blue, go green”. He promised to lead the “greenest government ever”. His presence and actions at this month’s summit will be a significant test of these commitments and aspirations.
The moral case for action is clear. It is those suffering the most who carry the least historic responsibility for our situation. The wealthier industrialised nations have the power to act and secure a safe world for today’s poorest and tomorrow’s children. Christian Aid is soon to publish a report by Susan Durber examining the links between theology and climate change, in which it will be made very plain that the call for climate justice is something that echoes clearly the challenges found in the biblical prophets to a complacent and short-sighted society.
What is needed from our politicians is leadership that takes the long view and breaks free of the tight cycle of calculated electoral advantage – a calculation that often misses the issues that most directly affect everyone’s wellbeing. We’re starting to see this with the publication of a paper from the Department of Energy and Climate Change which outlines the need for, and the benefit of, an ambitious climate deal at the Paris meeting. But as Christiana Figueres, the leading UN spokesperson on climate change, said in a speech in St Paul’s Cathedral last May, we need to see action already in place this year if the deal in 2015 is to be strong enough: we need the groundwork laid, and we need clear signs that the political will is there. [Abridged]