Tue, Apr 24, 2007 - Page 9 News List

There is no doubt now: Global warming is a threat to everyone

The debate on climate change at a meeting of the UN Security Council was a sign that the big powers are at last beginning to see sense after years of denial

By Jonathan Freedland  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

If British politics were a dinner party then Prime Minister Tony Blair would be that guest who got up to say goodbye an hour ago, insisting he had to be off -- only to hang around by the front door, his coat on and car keys jangling, chatting about this and that and never actually leaving.

The result is a strange sense of limbo, where the old period has not quite ended and the new one has not yet begun. A sense of drift has hovered over the British government since the attempt to push the prime minister from office last September. Ministers insist they are as busy as ever, but they admit to an absence of leadership. It feels like nothing is happening.

So it's heartening to hear of one area, at least, where the British government has taken a lead. On April 17 the UN Security Council discussed climate change for the very first time. Not some environmental subcommittee, not a platitudinous exchange of slogans in the general assembly, nor even the intergovernmental panel on climate change, but the Security Council. The same council that usually grapples with border disputes, sanctions or weapons of mass destruction -- that council was debating carbon emissions and the danger they pose to the Earth.

That may seem sensible and obvious: after all, if the council's job is to fret about threats to global security then the threats don't come much bigger than the risk that we might be boiling the planet. But, incredibly, the body had never talked about global warming before -- and they were not keen to start.

Of the permanent members, the US, Russia and China had all objected, Moscow's ambassador to the UN admitting he was "lukewarm because of where it is discussed." Translation: the Security Council is meant for grown-up stuff involving bombs and bullets, not airy-fairy talk about trees and polar bears.

Unluckily for Washington, Moscow and Beijing, the presidency of the Security Council rotates, and this month it's Britain's turn. UK Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett insisted that this is what she wanted the council to discuss, and on April 17th they did.

She was right to insist. Right, too, not to bother with passing a resolution -- where the argument would have rapidly descended into a long row about the semicolon in line five -- but to have what UN-speak calls a "thematic debate," one that seeks solely to force an issue into people's minds.

Despite the misgivings of those big three, it turned out to be quite an event: a record turnout for a debate of this kind, not confined to the 15 members of the council but with speeches from 52 different countries. By the end, a strong majority agreed that climate change posed a clear threat to international security.

That was the entire point of the exercise, to reframe the way people think about this problem.

There's good, pragmatic reasoning behind that. The glum reality is that governments tend to take security threats more seriously than any other kind. Just think of what Washington has spent on the "war on terror." If US President George W. Bush gets his latest budget through Congress, he will have spent US$750 billion of US taxpayers' money on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in a little over five years. Environmentalists drool when they imagine what they could have done with a fraction of that money. Even a quarter of the total, say a meagre US$200 billion, could have paid for enormous strides towards a low carbon economy. It could, for instance, have paid to transform the way we generate electricity, by capturing carbon and storing it in the ground, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere.

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