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Everyone talks about the weather

Britain is hit by floods and droughts due to climate change. The result is a radicalized climate policy and broad consensus: We cannot continue as before.


[climate] Labour's policy has failed. When four profiled British ministers met the press last week, they admitted it themselves. The target of reducing CO2 emissions by 20 per cent compared to the 1990 level by 2010 is unlikely to be achieved.

Ministers tried to explain that Britain is still on the right track. At the same time, the government published a long and detailed program list of measures against climate change. However, they could not compensate for the general impression: "a grim admission of failure on what was meant to be one of Mr. Blair's top priorities", the program list was called by a spokesman for the Conservative opposition.

It does not help Blair that the British results are significantly better than the Norwegian ones. The UK is set to achieve the Kyoto targets, which means that UK emissions will be reduced by 12,5 per cent. But it's not enough. The British are well aware that the Kyoto agreement is only a short step on the road. The greatest value of the agreement is that it expresses a concrete and unified will to deal with climate change before it is too late. If we are to maintain a level climate, it must be taken harder. As Blair himself emphasized: You simply cannot wait for five years to get a new climate agreement.

The UK has already noticed climate change, and is likely to be one of the hardest hit European countries in the future. This may be one of the reasons why the debate about global warming is at a completely different level in the UK than in Norway.

Flood and dry at the same time

What has most influenced the collective awareness of climate change in the UK is, after all, judging by the floods that have hit England and Scotland in recent years. The flood damage bill is now well over NOK 20 billion per year. And it doesn't stop there. Costs are estimated to increase to more than 2000 billion a year if investments are not made in preventive measures.

London now has one million inhabitants at risk of flooding, and up to four million Britons are threatened by floods in the fairly near future. New defenses are planned, but the authorities have had to accept that it is impossible to protect the whole of Britain. Low-lying land areas that were previously cultivated land will in the future be both defenses against floods and wetlands. We are talking about ten thousand hectares of agricultural land in the next few years – to keep up with the increase in spring tides and storms.

At the same time, and just seemingly paradoxical, prolonged drought has become a recurring problem in the UK. Already in February this year, the British, like the French, were asked to limit their water use.

Radical changes

Climate protection has been one of Labor's core issues since 1997. Today, support for climate protection is greater than ever in the British Parliament. 349 MPs – more than half – have signed a draft proposal (Early Day Motion) for a national target of three percent emission cuts each year. No other proposal has received similar support during this parliamentary session, writes the BBC.

An All-Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group has also emerged and is now gathering over 100 elected representatives from the three largest political parties. They have an ambition to lead the way. "Business as usual," the systematic pursuit of more economic growth, must be abandoned, they explain.

Colin Challen, Member of Parliament from Labor and leader of this unifying political initiative, believes that one must dare to think the unthinkable. "Climate change means that business as usual is stillborn. This means that economic growth 'as usual' is dead. " The problem is, he says, that the policy that is to promote economic growth, and that "business as usual" is still alive and well. Politicians are caught up in their promises – promises that can only be achieved by more looting of the world's resources.

While the government is pointing to very good economic growth to justify the poor climate targets, critics believe this only reinforces their points: Constant economic growth nullifies the results achieved by streamlining production and emitting less greenhouse gases per unit produced. The notion of growth becomes completely misleading: "No matter how large the economic growth, it cannot pay for the damage caused by a new and unstable climate," Challen explains.

Sustainable thoughts

The cross-party parliamentary group proposes a principle of "contraction and convergence" as a solution to one of the biggest problems for an overall boost in climate policy: Closing the gap between the different countries' needs and emissions. The principle was first presented ten years ago, and has aroused interest in many circles. The thinking is that the industrialized countries gradually reduce emissions by reducing their over-consumption of fossil fuels to a sustainable level, while poor countries develop their energy consumption, including fossil fuels. In this way, the emission levels will eventually meet at a level that is in line with nature's ability to absorb the greenhouse gases. The goal is for the world's inhabitants to achieve equal emission rights – at the same time as the amount of emissions does not exceed what the climate system can live with.

This could be accomplished at the national level by introducing the rationing of the emissions, the cross-party parliamentary group believes. Both individuals, companies, and after each country should be allowed to emit a specific and limited amount of greenhouse gases. Those who do not use their total quota could sell the rest to others. Such an approach will stimulate investment both in streamlining existing technologies and in other alternative energy sources and production methods.

Such radical proposals are only possible with full political consensus, which is why the UK's inter-political initiative is pioneering. And no matter how radical such proposals sound, they are far more realistic than the alternative, namely "business as usual", which creates bigger problems than you can solve.

The genocide of the times?

"Our economic model is not so different, when you look at it soberly, from that of the Third Reich – which showed that it was easy to expand by rushing to what you needed from the neighbors." The worst genocide in history followed, as is well known. And Challen, who makes this comparison, asks the defiant question: Who can come and say that genocide is not a good description of what we are doing now, when we continue with business as usual, and deliberately ignore the consequences of climate change for the world's poorest people?

The most immediate illustration of Challeng's points is the hunger that spreads daily in large parts of Africa after several years of severe drought. The recurrent drought has been unequivocally linked to climate change.

That does not mean that climate change is the only reason why so many millions of people are in an emergency. Here as otherwise, climate change comes in addition to many other and tangled factors. However, this is the overall result people must relate to. And no matter how you turn it around: You can't grow food without water.

If climate change is not successful, millions of people will lose their lives. This is just one of the reasons why the British group leader talks about genocide. And as he says: Who can say that the word will not cover, if richer countries blindly continue to destroy the basis of human life?

Look to Sweden

Avisa The Independent recently invited its readers to submit comments and suggestions on climate policy. The next day there was a very long list of reflected input. It is interesting that several of the submitters refer to Sweden, which recently announced an ambitious program to become completely independent of oil imports by 2020, using renewable energy sources. One can easily understand the British's frustration over Blair's ambiguous leadership. At the same time, we should be inspired by the British debate, where at least one dares to turn our eyes straight into the future. n

Nina Dessau is a social economist, political scientist and author. Her latest book, Global Warming, just came out on Pax's publishing house.

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