these people? Johann Hari:
The G8 was a slap-in-the-face reminder that we can't leave it up to
our leaders to choose a sane path
Published: 11 June 2007
Our leaders have been to Heiligendamm and back - but as the G8 summit
in the German city ends with a chorus of boos and the tossing of
rotten fruit, the two great threats to life on this planet remain as
imminent as ever.
The heads of the richest nations could not agree to keep global
warming this side of two degrees centigrade, and despite Vladimir
Putin pledging to point his nukes at European cities once again, they
didn't even talk about reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the
world. This means that the odds of mankind making it out of the next
few centuries alive just shrank a little bit more.
This sounds, at first glance, hysterical, I know. What's three
degrees of warming? A little extra sunscreen and a new pair of Gucci
sunglasses, surely. But the overwhelming scientific evidence tells us
something very different. The maximum figure of two degrees of
warming on the global thermostat was not plucked randomly by Angela
Merkel, the German Chancellor who tried to drag the other leaders
towards it. No - it is calculated by virtually all the world's
scientists to be the threshold beyond which our planet's fragile
natural systems will begin to unravel rapidly .
The environmentalist Mark Lynas pores through the scientific studies
to explain why in his new book, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter
Planet. The Amazon rainforest has no resistance to fire, because it
is constantly humid. If the world hits three degrees of warming, that
humidity dries out - and the Amazon, the lungs of the earth, burns to
the ground. Without the Amazon acting as a vast carbon sink, the
world gets warmer still, rising to four degrees. This causes the
Siberian peat-bogs to melt and burp out their massive store of
methane into the atmosphere. This pushes us up to five degrees - and
an unrecognisable planet scarred by crop failure. The last time the
world warmed by this much was 251 million years ago. The result was
that 95 per cent of everything on earth died. The only survivors were
a pig-like creature called Lysotorous, who had the land to himself
for the next 50 million years, and a few clams in the oceans.
Staying this side of two degrees is the most urgent cause of our
time. But why couldn't we even get agreement on that?
The main obstacle was George Bush, a man whose life has been much in
the service of the companies who profit from pumping out warming
gasses. His acceptance of a pledge in the summit's final communiqué
to halve emissions by 2050 was, alas, an empty gesture. His real
views on global warming became clear in 2001, when he invited the
pulp fiction writer Michael Crichton into the Oval Office to tell him
how much he loved his book State of Fear.
It shows how a string of environmentalist groups, motivated solely by
the desire to raise as many funds as possible, become frustrated that
global warming isn't happening. So they decide to manufacture vast
weather machines to make it look like it is. They blast a huge chunk
of glacier off the Antarctic, and arrange for a tsunami to hit the
West Coast of the United States on the day of an academic conference
warning about warming.
Close Republican allies of Bush called Crichton to testify on the
Hill at scientific hearings, and congratulated him on his " brave
exposé" . (Soon they will no doubt announce a programme to defend
America from all those escaped dinosaurs). But Bush was not alone:
for all our talk, here in Europe our greenhouse gas emissions
actually rose last year. If you factor in all the manufacturing we
have out-shored to China, they rose dramatically.
Another long-term threat - just as serious, if less discussed today -
was even more neglected at the G8. The response from Western publics
to Putin's nuclear threats was mostly bemused: didn't the mushroom
cloud disappear in the rubble of the Berlin Wall? In fact, in the
short period since the fall of Soviet tyranny, there has been at
least one time when their nukes were very nearly fired.
One morning in January 1995, Boris Yeltsin was awoken from an
alcoholic stupor to be told that the United States had fired a
nuclear missile at Russia and he must immediately retailate. It
turned out the Russian computers were on the blink - a perrennial
problem, given the gradual decomposition of the bits of the Soviet
nuclear arsenal that have not been stolen. This mistake was only
realised at the last moment, just before Yeltsin gave the order to
The dangers of nuclear exchanges - accidental or deliberate - are
multiplying across the globe, as hot-spots turn into Cold Wars. It is
only four summers since Britain told its citizens to evacuate India
and Pakistan because they were so close to a nuclear war. Even today,
there is no nuclear hotline between the rival powers, and Pakistan's
Pervez Musharraf is on the brink of being toppled - to be replaced
by ... who? If these two countries alone exchanged their nuclear
arsenals, there is evidence suggesting there would be a nuclear
winter, blocking out the sun's rays and killing us all.
Far from draining the nuclear pressure, the Bush administration is
perversely ramping it up. The current moves towards a nuclear missile
shield have been misrepresented. No such shield could ever work
against incoming nukes, as every test has shown. But what it can do
is shoot down non-US satellites. Satellites are now essential for
military communications; if you can take them out at will, you have
massive and unrivalled power. That's why Putin is asserting his own
power in response, and why Bush will decline his offer of a shared
base. The Bush administration is choosing to increase its own power,
even if the cost is an increase in nuclear danger.
There are rational solutions to this twin-set of nightmares. They lie
in a hard, binding international agreement to slash greenhouse gas
emissions, and a return to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in
which all nuclear powers gradually reduce their stashes of WMD.
As Bertrand Russell wrote in 1961 on behalf of the 12 most eminent
scientists in the world: "There lies before us, if we choose,
continual progress in happiness, knowledge and wisdom. Shall we,
instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We
appeal as human beings, to human beings: Remember your humanity, and
forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new
Paradise: if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal
The G8 was a slap-in-the-face reminder that we cannot leave it up to
our leaders to choose the sane path. We have to force them through
mass democratic movements like Greenpeace and a reclaimed Campaign
for Nuclear Disarmament. Perhaps we will fail. Perhaps humanity is
such an irrational, poorly evolved species that we cannot overcome
our tribalism and mutual suspicions and act in our own self-defence.
But when the alternatives are a barren world that is six degrees
warmer or a freezing nuclear winter, I think we ought to find out -
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