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International Business Events Ltd

11 Jan 2011 11:01:10

Agreements no susbstitute for action

by Sara Parkin, founder director of Forum for the Future, environmental activist and politician

I have lost count of the number of times I've been greeted with an accusing "So what about your global warming now, then?" after what is now officially the coldest December ever in the UK.

Careful explanations about the difference between weather and climate, sometimes enlivened with a jolly graph scribbled on the back of menus or beer mats sometimes do the trick. But the real communication challenge is not the certainty around the underlying warming of the global climate and the contribution of human emissions of greenhouse gases, but the uncertainty of the consequences, most of which manifest themselves at a regional, and sometimes more local, level. People find denial easier than considering how to live their lives, make business or political decisions, or plan for even the near future with the degree of uncertainty a changing climate imposes.

It would take many books to explore the reasons why we are not further on with cutting emissions of greenhouse gases or more adept at long-term planning, but almost everything boils down to the fact that we've designed economies that only seem to work if we consume ever larger loads of stuff.

So perhaps we should not have been surprised at the failure of the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen a year ago, where countries were, in effect, being asked to agree a common energy policy. One that would, if effective, derail economic growth (as currently calculated). That national leaders exposed themselves to this very public and inevitable failure demonstrates how poorly they understand the responsibility – and appropriate behaviours – of national leadership when it comes to climate change.

In many ways, the meeting at Cancun this December (where money and justice for poorer countries were discussed) should have taken place before Copenhagen. Then it might have become clearer sooner that international agreements are no substitute for national action. They may be a bonus but, in the end, climate change is best tackled in local communities.

It is not as if we don’t know what we need to do. Decarbonising energy supply and demand and becoming ultra-thrifty in the way we use everything from food to metals is something we can do in our own homes and workplaces, starting tomorrow. But as all of that strikes at the heart of the economic logic within which we live, it is to the Treasury and No 10 we should turn for leadership and policy incentives, not our environment departments.

In the meantime, however, we can reflect on how often leaders are dependent on the 'permission' of their followers to act, no more so than in uncertain times. So doing the right thing in your locality, your home and your business, despite being surrounded by the wrong institutions, policies and uncooperative people, can show leaders the way. Leadership is personal. Our responsibility is to give it as well as ask for it.

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