Show Hide image

Leader: World leaders need to become green heroes too

Without the requisite political will, the prospects for our planet remain bleak

"It may seem impossible to imagine," wrote Elizabeth Kolbert in Field Notes from a Catastrophe, her important book about climate change, "that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are in the process of doing". Few doubt that we are living at a time of emergency. It is understood now how quickly the earth is warming, because of the increase in the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases arising from human activity. If it continues at its present rate, we know what our fate will be, and yet we seem set on destroying ourselves.

So it was no surprise when President Obama said that there would be little chance of achieving a legally binding multi­lateral agreement at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which begins in Copenhagen on 7 December. The Copenhagen event has been used as a focus of environmental efforts by governments, charities and campaigners around the world. Every movement working towards dramatic global change needs a deadline. But the green movement needs it more than most: "Just a few degrees more", writes Kolbert, "and the Earth will be hotter than it has been at any time since our species evolved". The consequences of such warming would be devastating. The world's population is 6.7 billion and that figure is projected to rise to 8.5 billion by 2030. The Met Office calculates that the number of people living in water-stressed regions, currently around 1.5 billion, could increase to nearly 7 billion by the 2050s, because of climate change and population growth. As long as there remains a deadlock between developed and developing countries over who should act first, and, most drastically, on cutting CO2 emissions, this grim outlook will not improve.

Between 1830 and 2000, 30 per cent of carbon emissions were from the US, 30 per cent from Europe and 6 per cent from China. The developed world's debt is much the greater - even if China is the largest CO2 emitter today. To overcome the impasse, a vital combination of humility and political leadership of a kind as yet unseen from any world leader - including President Obama - is required.

In Britain, leadership on climate change has been more ­impressive than in the US. Ed Miliband, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, has acknowledged the hypocrisy of the rich world's position: lecturing poorer countries on how to manage their economy and energy supplies when it is the developed world's over-consumption and model of aggressive high-growth capitalism that caused the crisis in the first place.
A problem all political leaders face on this issue is a sceptical public. Climate-change denial has become a popular sport. In the US, the number of people who believe that the planet is warming has, over the past two years, dropped from 77 per cent to 57 per cent. Meanwhile, a recent poll for the Times revealed that only 41 per cent of the British population accept as an established scientific fact that global warming is taking place and is largely man-made.

Without the requisite political will, and with the increase in public doubt that climate change is happening at all, the prognosis for our planet remains bleak. However, as our cover story (page 28) demonstrates, the world is not only populated with green villains: the heroes are plentiful, too. None of them is a politician; they are, rather, mostly activists. From Vandana Shiva in India and Wen Bo in China, to Bill McKibben in the US and Franny Armstrong in the UK, these heroes are people who lead from the bottom up, corralling support for their cause by being passionate, committed and practically engaged. If the politicians can only delay and equivocate, we must take matters into our own hands.


Sign up to the New Statesman newsletter and receive weekly updates from the team

This article first appeared in the 23 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Green Heroes and Villains

Show Hide image

Lord Geoffrey Howe dies, age 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.