Climate change: No time to waste

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.

The dangers of climate change have been 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.

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 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. Climate change affects everyone.

The science is complex but the facts are clear. The world needs to take steps to limit temperature rises to two degrees Centigrade (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), an aim that will require global emissions to begin falling within the next five-10 years. A bigger rise of three or four degrees C (5.4-7.2 F) — the smallest increase we can expect to follow inaction — would parch continents, turning farmland into desert. Half of all species could become extinct, millions of people would be displaced, whole nations drowned by the sea. The controversy over e-mails 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.

Agree on fairness

Few believe that Copenhagen can produce a treaty; real progress toward one could only begin with the arrival of President Obama in the White House and the reversal of years of U.S. obstructionism. But the politicians in Copenhagen can agree on the essential elements of a fair and effective deal and, crucially, a firm timetable for turning it into a treaty. Next June’s U.N. meeting in Bonn should be their deadline.

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

Rich nations like to point out that there can be no solutions until developing giants such as China take more radical steps. But the rich world is responsible for three-quarters of all carbon dioxide emitted since 1850. It must now take a lead, and every developed country must commit to reduce their emissions within a decade to substantially less than their 1990 level.

Developing countries can point out they did not cause the bulk of the problem. 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.

Help poorer countries

The industrialized world should dig deep into its pockets to help poorer countries adapt to climate change and clean technologies to enable them to grow economically. 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.

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. 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 jobs and better quality lives. 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. 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.

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