Editorial The Guardian: 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.

• How the Copenhagen global leader came about
• Write your own editorial
• The papers that carried the Copenhagen editorial
• In pictures: How newspapers around the world ran the editorial

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.

[This editorial is free to reproduce under Creative Commons]

4 Responses to Editorial The Guardian: Fourteen days to seal history’s judgment on this generation

  1. Dennis Webb December 8, 2009 at 2:05 pm #

    A response from CSCCC:

    “Your editorial claims that climate change will “ravage our planet, and with it our prosperity and security”. Ironically, with respect to climate and more generally, the very absence of prosperity is the problem for several billion of our planet’s inhabitants.

    “Poverty results from government policies which hinder people from generating wealth and prosperity. Tragically, the leaders of poor countries invoke the climate change scapegoat to explain hunger, sickness and climate vulnerability. They will arrive in Copenhagen with begging bowls in hand, alleging that wealthy countries have caused their problems. At the same time, vested interests such as ArcelorMittal – with £1 billion of carbon credits on its books – are keen that their assets don’t lose value when Kyoto expires in 2012. The poor truly are left out of this equation.

    “In light of climate change and myriad other problems facing humanity, political pleaders gathering in Copenhagen must focus on policies that enhance adaptability to climate while generating prosperity at the same time: economic growth, democracy, freedom to trade and property ownership.”

  2. Dennis Webb December 8, 2009 at 2:08 pm #

    The circulation of many newspapers is plummeting, largely because an increasing number of people are finding their constricted views irrelevant compared to the broad spectrum of information that can be obtained from the internet. Nowhere is this more obvious than the climate debate, or rather lack thereof in places such as the Herald. The refusal of its letters editor and editorial writers to understand the implications of Climategate is very disappointing. The refusal to give space to those scientists whose work disputes the role of CO2 as a major driver of climate, the blocking of anti-AGW contributions to the letters blog and the monochrome selection of letters on climate change all point to a quasi-religious suppression of matters of great importance.

    There will be many of the true believers who applaud this censorship of views that make them feel uncomfortable. However, in future, they will have to pay more for their newspaper of comfort since many of us former subscribers look elsewhere to stay informed.

    Dr Art Raiche
    Retired CSIRO Chief Research Scientist
    Former SMH subscriber

  3. jennifer December 8, 2009 at 3:22 pm #

    The Editor
    The Courier Mail

    Dear Sir

    If the ‘success’ of the Copenhagen extravaganza depends on an opening speech which quoted ‘a six-year-old boy … who lost his parents in a cyclone, and warned that if such events were to be prevented, a deal on climate was needed’ followed by ‘an alarming video of a young girl having a nightmare about global warming … as the girl saw her playground turned into a desert wasteland, and screamed as she battled floods and storms’ (CM 8 Dec), can we please recall our delegates immediately.

    What a testimony to mass stupidity! Sure the young people of today are having nightmares. The Al Gore film and a perfect storm of propaganda rubbishing our carbon-based society has embedded unnecessary and illogical fear into the minds of upcoming generations (and too many oldies who should know the right questions to ask).

    Nothing they do in Copenhagen can stop cyclones. What they can do in Copenhagen is to say ‘Sorry! We are on a fool’s errand. We are going home to make the world a better place by offering the citizens of each of our countries a fair field and no favours. We are going to forgo our junkets and spend our time and money in creating a safe place in which to do honest business, and we will punish any individuals or businesses who steal from others, or engage in deceptive practices, or who pollute their neighbours’ property (and carbon dioxide is not a pollutant).

    But while one can dream of such a Utopia, vested interests in the new South Sea Bubble, the Carbon Bubble, will be pumping out more Hollywood-style nightmare scenarios to pollute the minds of those who don’t or won’t think for themselves. Horror films sell well at the box office, regardless of the morality or lack of it.

    John McRobert

  4. Gordon Robertson December 10, 2009 at 12:42 pm #

    “TODAY 56 newspapers in 45 countries take the unprecedented step of speaking with one voice through a common editorial”.

    The media finally admit they are involved in a coverup. Scumbags!!

    I have not purchased either of the major newspapers in Vancouver, Canada for several years. One of them had Suzuki as editor for the day and you have never seen such butt kissing in your life.

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