Open Mind

The better angels of our nature

December 8, 2009 · 24 Comments

Fifty-six newspapers worldwide are running, on the front page, this editorial from the Guardian:

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.

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.

Categories: Global Warming

24 responses so far ↓

  • David B. Benson // December 8, 2009 at 11:10 pm | Reply

    But in the USA, only the Miami Herald…

  • Scott A. Mandia // December 9, 2009 at 12:47 am | Reply

    Outstanding and very reasonable.

    • TrueSceptic // December 10, 2009 at 12:43 am | Reply


      You seem somewhat underwhelmed. Getting 56 newspapers in various languages to carry the same editorial seems quite an achievement… unless, of course, they are part of the great warmofascist environazi greenoliberal plot to take over the planet and establish a communist world government that will outlaw all freedom, tax us all into poverty, and kill billions?

      Did I miss anything? ;)

  • Ray Ladbury // December 9, 2009 at 1:20 am | Reply

    Since Tamino alluded to Lincoln’s 1st inaugural address, I’ll quote the last two paragraphs:

    “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend it.” 34
    I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature. ”

    We as scientists have taken an oath to discover, preserve, protect and defend the truth… and that is the source of our conflict with the denialists.

    • naught101 // December 9, 2009 at 10:50 am | Reply

      Really? There’s something like the Hippocratic Oath for scientists? Where do I sign up?

    • Gavin's Pussycat // December 9, 2009 at 3:10 pm | Reply

      Ray, the phrase is in the editorial.

      naught101, the oath is in the practice.

      • Ray Ladbury // December 9, 2009 at 3:40 pm

        I realize the quote is in the editorial. I just think it is important to understand the origin of the quote. Lincoln had a knack for finding the right words. As with Lincoln, we need not bear our opponents any ill will. However, they must realize that we are unable to compromise our defense of the truth.

  • Nathan // December 9, 2009 at 3:28 am | Reply

    Meanwhile Ian Plimer embarrases himself even further

    At least we, who live in Perth Western Australia, can tell straight away that this a lie… Last time we had a temp below zero was July 2006.

  • Deep Climate // December 9, 2009 at 4:04 am | Reply

    And now a word about the dark side of newspapers. You though WSJ was bad?

    None can compare to Canada’s own “contrarian newspaper of record”, the National Post. My latest post, the second of the “In the beginning” series, focuses on the collaboration since 1998 (!) between editor Terence Corcoran and PR spinmeister Tom Harris.

    There’s more to come, too, including the real story behind the Bali open letter of 2007, and what Tom Harris is up to now in Copenhagen. Stay tuned …

  • Kevin McKinney // December 9, 2009 at 5:02 am | Reply

    “the better angels of our nature”–amen to that.

  • luminous beauty // December 9, 2009 at 2:49 pm | Reply

    The sole dedicated TV & radio coverage of Copenhagen in the US of which I am aware is at Democracy Now:

  • climatewonk // December 9, 2009 at 2:53 pm | Reply

    Everything seemed a lot bigger when I was a kid. Guess the world musta shrunk…

  • Deep Climate // December 10, 2009 at 9:09 pm | Reply

    Still on the subject of the dark side of newspapers, (as promised) – the full story on the infamous Bali open letter of two years ago:

    The National Post’s coverage of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Chamge) Bali conference … did feature one particularly disturbing instance of contrarian boosterism, the infamous Bali open letter.

    The full story, told here for the first time, shows how editor and skeptic cheerleader Terence Corcoran crossed the line from opinionated commentary to active participation in a shadowy public relations stunt aimed at scuttling the Bali negotiations. And complaisant editor-in-chief Douglas Kelly went along with the charade, not even bothering to force Corcoran to reveal the key involvement of longtime disinformation specialist Tom Harris and his “astroturf” Natural Resources Stewardship Project.

  • Barton Paul Levenson // December 11, 2009 at 10:48 am | Reply

    Ian Plimer can’t humiliate himself much further than he did when he endorsed Oliver Manuel’s “theory” that the sun is made out of iron.

  • Ray Ladbury // December 11, 2009 at 12:52 pm | Reply

    Barton Paul Levenson says, “Ian Plimer can’t humiliate himself much further than he did when he endorsed Oliver Manuel’s “theory” that the sun is made out of iron.”

    Hmm. Wanna bet?

  • RedLogix // December 13, 2009 at 7:24 pm | Reply

    I spend much of my life as an automation engineer looking at noisy real-time trend plot data from all sorts of processes. After doing this for 30 years or more my ‘eyeball’ science is as useful to me as is Tamino’s (far more sophisticated) statistical analysis. Personally I eyeball all these temperature graphs going back a century or more… and reality of AGW is bleedingly obvious.

    That many other ordinary folk like me are being deceived into not seeing this simple fact is the result of a very sophisiticated and professional campaign of misdirection.

    These sorts of propaganda campaigns have nothing to do with truth. Have you not noticed that pointing up their basic errors (some so laughable even I can see them unaided), is never acknowledged or admitted? That it never prompts them to re-think anything? Have you ever noticed that they literally never produce any new data or research of their own, that all they do is pick and carp over the work of others?

    All this is because the truth is irrelevant to them. Acknowledging error would imply intellectual integrity, and that would not serve their purpose. Original research would imply an honest endeavour to work with real information, and that does not serve their purpose either.

    Their sole purpose is to deceive, and their behaviour is proof of this. When the history of this epsode in human life is written, the root sources of the controversy will be traced to a small handful of professional agititators who have knowingly and malicously concocted lies in order to serve the interests of their masters. My contempt for these miserable traitors to our future is complete.

    The only good thing about the deniers and their entirely manufactured fear, uncertainty and doubt campaign, is that I’ve been compelled out of curiosity to learn the underlying science and maths. For this Tamino has been my first stop for some years now, and as a long time lurker I want to thank you for the fantastic effort you have made and how grateful I am for it.

  • Steven Earl Salmony // December 13, 2009 at 9:39 pm | Reply

    All the dunderheaded disinformation, deceit, delay, denial and disasterous decisionmaking of the past 8 long dark years are in the past. With a little luck people with feet of play will overcome the arrogance, wanton greed and stupidity perpetrated by the Masters of the Universe among us, the most avaricious and self-righteous ones who widely proclaim their greed-mongering is God’s work.

    What mental disorder describes those among us who proclaim themselves Masters of the Universe doing the work of God?

    Years of hard work by people with feet of clay all come down to this week in Copenhagen. The “now or never” week is at hand for the children, global biodiversity, life as we know it, the integrity of Earth and its environs. This week is the moment that the Masters of the Universe cannot avoid any longer; all of the human family are bound in this long-awaited momentous week. The time for action has come, finally. The opportunity held in this blessed moment must not be missed.

    If anyone thinks of something that I can do to assist any of you to reasonably, sensibly, responsibly and humanely realize the goals of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, please send word to me.

    Steve Salmony
    Chapel Hill, North Carolina

  • cthulhu // December 13, 2009 at 10:01 pm | Reply

    A nice investigation:

    It caused Watt’s to remove his sticky post and he has even put up a link to the economist feedback so readers can complain.

    I thought the sticky post was a bad idea, it was just drawing attention. Watt’s would be better off sticking to the hit and run approach of 5 posts a day that just fall off the end of the blog before anyone has time to investigate them.

  • Horatio Algeranon // December 14, 2009 at 4:07 pm | Reply

    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”.

    or as Bob Dylan said (as interpreted by Horatio)

    We’re never ever going back again
    Had to get to 350 somehow
    All the fossil-fuels we used to know
    They’re an illusion to us now
    Some were replaced by solar
    Some by bio-fuels
    Don’t know how it all got started
    But now we live by different rules
    Humanity took a different road
    Heading for a cleaner joint
    We only had to change the game
    Just see it from a different point of view
    Not tangled in CO2

  • Mike G // December 16, 2009 at 4:12 pm | Reply

    Did anyone else catch NPR’s coverage from Copenhagen yesterday morning? As if there was ever any question about Lomborg’s legitimacy, you can see his comments here-

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