As delegates gathered in Bali, Indonesia for the latest United Nations (UN) talks on climate change, millions of people hoped they would kick start the urgent action that the world desperately needs.
Predictions from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) paint a bleak picture of the future. By 2020 between 75 and 250 million people worldwide will face “an increase in water stress due to climate change”.
In the face of this urgent threat, the outcome of the Bali talks feels like a massive anticlimax.
Much has been made of the US government’s refusal to commit to reduction targets and its attempt to deflect blame onto developing countries.
There were cheers when the US finally agreed to a compromise agreement, which might lead some to believe that a significant step forward had been taken.
But the agreement merely sets out a “roadmap” of further talks.
The US government repeatedly talks about the need for developing countries such as China to tackle emissions.
But although China is a major source of greenhouse gases, its emission level per head of the population is around 15 percent of that of the US.
In trying to shift the blame onto the developing world, the US is simply trying to avoid taking any action itself – action that it feels would harm its economic competitiveness.
This is appalling hypocrisy. Developed countries like Britain and the US are by far the most significant contributors to the problem. With 5 percent of the world’s population, the US is responsible for 30 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.
By virtue of being the site of the first industrial revolution, Britain is responsible for 6 percent of historic emissions. The country’s wealth has been built on the back of burning fossil fuels and Britain should bear significant responsibility for tackling the consequences.
Despite the government’s rhetoric, plans to tackle climate change are very limited.
Take industry minister John Hutton’s announcement of plans for an expansion of wind turbines around the British coast. The speech made headline news yet there is very little in the way of concrete plans.
Britain also hopes to have a fifth of energy coming from renewable sources by 2020. But the government tried to wriggle out this target last autumn, only backing down in the face of a public outcry when the news was leaked to the media.
During the Bali conference, the BBC interviewed scientific advisors to the British and German governments.
They said that governments had been to slow to act and that it was unlikely that the world would avoid “dangerous levels of climate change”.
This cynicism is shared by many who have watched governments dodge the issue over the years.
Despite the previous emissions agreement that emerged from the 1997 Kyoto conference, we have seen emissions rise in countries across the world – Japan’s emissions are up 7 percent, Italy’s by 7.4 percent, Spain’s by almost 60 percent.
But millions of people believe that change is possible. They might be cynical about the ability of governments to deliver – but they know that governments will act if forced to.
Discussing solutions to climate change raises broader political questions.
The expansion of the M6 motorway is costing £1,000 an inch. It doesn’t take a genius to see how emissions would be reduced if that was spent on improving rail and bus services instead. But this can only happen if public transport is renationalised.
The question of whether Gordon Brown would ever do that opens up discussions over the type of political campaigns that can force governments to implement the changes that are needed.
Far from damaging ordinary people’s lives, the sort of social changes that are needed to save the planet will actually improve living conditions – integrated and cheap public transport, decent public housing with proper insulation, more efficient use of power and less congested roads.
The international protests that took place during the Bali conference were impressive. They show the potential for grassroots movements to develop that challenge to government inaction, but also to the priorities of a system prepared to let the planet burn in the interest of the status quo.
Martin Empson is author of the pamphlet Climate Change – Why Nuclear Power Is Not The Answer. It is available from Bookmarks, phone 020 7637 1848 » www.bookmarks.uk.com