Except in particularly vulnerable parts of the world, such as Bangladesh and some Pacific islands, humanity watches rising sea levels with equanimity. Rising oil prices, however, cause panic. Inflation, we are told, will zoom, haulage firms will go bankrupt, farmers will starve, villages will be cut off, children will go unschooled. Does it occur to nobody that, if the warnings of global warming caused by excessive fossil fuel consumption prove correct, the economic effects will be far more damaging than paying £1 a litre at the petrol pumps? And does it occur to nobody that, if the developed countries were to invest more single-mindedly in renewable energy, they would be spared future panics on this scale? No more worries about oil price spikes, the major cause of every recession in the past 30 years. No more kowtowing to the odious tyrants who spring up almost everywhere oil is discovered. No more need to invade Middle Eastern countries and wage wars on their territory.
A wind turbine on every British hillside seems a small price to pay. Even the proposal for the revival of nuclear power from the environmentalist James Lovelock deserves a hearing. Nuclear energy certainly carries great risks, but it is doubtful that they are as great as those posed by global warming. For a start, the risk of terrorist attack on a nuclear installation would be considerably reduced if westerners were not trampling all over the Muslim world in search of oil.
The world is said already to be reducing its dependence on oil, but this is only in relative terms. Though much of the present growth in demand comes from China, the growth in North American demand is almost as great. The US Department of Energy predicts that total world oil output will rise from 78 million barrels a day now to 121 million by 2025.
The great strides in energy efficiency made by manufacturing industries have been offset by an increasingly profligate use of energy in the service industries and in private consumption: the growth of external lighting and even external heating; the boom in SUVs and 4x4s; the growth of long-distance commuting and out-of-town superstores; the explosion of short-break overseas holidays; the development of centralised food distribution that requires a carrot to travel halfway across the country before it can get to a shop a few miles from where it was grown, and a pig to cross international borders to become ham before returning to the country it started from. All this is the result of low oil prices, which encourage unnecessary energy consumption and discourage innovations in alternative energy. The corrupt rulers of major oil-producing countries have every reason to heed western entreaties to hold prices down. By doing so, they keep out new entrants to the energy market. As a former Opec secretary general once observed, the Stone Age did not end because people ran out of stones. It ended when people found something better. The same is true of oil which, despite some forecasts, is unlikely to save us all by running out.
The world has two hopes. One is to engineer a soft landing from oil by gradually raising taxes and otherwise penalising its use. So Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, should resist, in his best Calvinist manner, the planned protests against fuel taxes which are being encouraged, with typical opportunism, by Michael Howard, the Tory leader. The second hope is terrorism in the Middle East. This can bring about a hard landing by knocking out the Saudi oil industry and, with it, 10 per cent of world oil production. The soft landing is infinitely preferable. But if governments cannot do the job, the world may yet have cause to be grateful to al-Qaeda.
Swallow hard and vote Labour
At the Hay-on-Wye literary festival a few days ago, the former foreign secretary Robin Cook was repeatedly asked by anguished middle-class folk, who had previously supported Labour, how they should vote if they hated the war in Iraq. Mr Cook urged them to stick with Labour. As a Labour MP, he could do nothing else. But he was also right. This is not only because, despite Peter Dunn's criticisms of the government's record (page 20), millions of poor people have reason to be grateful for seven years of Labour government and even more reason to fear a Tory return. It is also because opponents of the Iraq war should get more, not less, engaged with the Labour Party.
This is the only effective way of making their point. To vote Tory is to vote for a party that supported the invasion even more forcefully. To vote Liberal Democrat is to revive the split on the left that did so much damage in the 1980s. To vote Respect is to subscribe to some dubious values (see Nick Cohen, page 26). To abstain is irresponsible, at least in the European and London Assembly elections, because it risks allowing the UK Independence Party and, worse, the British National Party to reach the proportion of votes they need to gain representation. Under the complex mathematics of the d'Hondt proportional representation system, there is a similar, though smaller, risk even in casting a vote for the Greens.
To most opponents of the war, the Labour Party - as opposed to Tony Blair and his ministers - is still the best option. After all, Mr Cook, too, is a member. So if you really care, join it. Threaten your MP or MEP with deselection if he or she supports more wars or the occupation of Iraq. Demand a new leader. Vote when there is a leadership election. Get elected as an annual conference delegate and boo the leader's speech if you don't like it. Real democracy is hard work - harder than marching around London with a banner on a sunny afternoon and then staying at home on polling day.