THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Choice at Copenhagen: Heroism, or Collective Suicide

Mohammed Nasheed knows what global warming means,
because he sees it every day. He survived years of imprisonment and
torture to lead his country – the Maldives – to democracy. But now, as
its president, he is being forced to watch as his homeland is wiped
from the map. With each year that passes, the rising sea claims more
land, and at the current rate it will claim everything.

He
knows why. We know why. It is because we have released massive amounts
of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and we aren't stopping. Unless
we turn around – fast – the Maldives will be gone.

Today,
he has a final plea. President Nasheed says: "Copenhagen can be one of
two things. It can be an historic event where the world unites against
carbon pollution in a collective spirit of co-operation and
collaboration, or Copenhagen can be a suicide pact. The choice is that
stark."

If we fail, the story of the Maldives will become
our story. A ream of scientific studies now suggest we could be on
course for 6°C of global warming this century. It doesn't sound like
much at first. But the last time the world warmed by six degrees so
fast was at the end of the Permian period, 251 million years ago. The
result? Almost everything on earth died.

The
only survivors were a few shelled creatures in the oceans, and a
pig-like creature that had the land to itself for millions of years.
The earth was racked by "hypercanes" – hurricanes so strong they even
left their mark on the ocean floor. Oxygen levels in the atmosphere
plunged to 15 per cent; low enough to leave any fast-moving animal
gasping for breath. These six degrees of separation stand between us
and a planet we do not recognise and cannot live on.

The
fever of denialism is natural. This is so far outside our experience
that is seems intuitively untrue, wrong or even mad. I desperately
wish the deniers were right: I would jump on the next flight to Tahiti
for a month-long party. But the scientific consensus is overwhelming –
as strong as the consensus that smoking causes lung cancer, or HIV
causes AIDS. The deniers are a discredited fringe with virtually no
scientists currently working in the field. If you release greenhouse
gases into the atmosphere on an industrial scale year after year, the
world will get much warmer, and many of us will die.

I
have seen it happen. In the past few years, I have reported from three
places where global warming is having a catastrophic effect – the
Arctic, Bangladesh and the borders of Darfur. I spoke to Inuit who are
watching in disbelief as their historic hunting lands disappear and the
ice sheets crumble into the sea. I stood on the drowning coast of
Bangladesh as villagers pointed to a spot in the middle of the sea and
said: "That is where my house was."

"When did you leave?" I asked.

"Last year," they said, shaking their heads.

But
it was in Darfur that I got the plainest glimpse into a much warmer
world. The settled farmers and the nomadic pastoralists had developed a
peaceful way to share the water supplies of the area – but then, in the
1990s, the water started to vanish. As one refugee put it to me:
"The water dried up, and so we started to kill each other for what was
left." (The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has said this is due to
global warming, summarizing the reports of his leading scientists.)
When the things we require to survive vanish – water, food and land –
we don't wait to die. We kill for them.

Whenever
the scientific consensus is accurately described, the deniers cry that
we are being "alarmist". There is a difference between being alarmist,
and being alarmed by the facts. To know what we know and carry on
pumping out warming gases wouldn't just be foolish. It would be a
crime. Yet even politicians who understand the science don't believe
there will be progress at Copenhagen, because we must adhere to
"political reality." People aren't ready to make changes; there's still
a sense this is a vague problem for future generations; the US Senate
won't pass a bill; and on, and on. But in a conflict between political
and physical reality, physical reality will win. You can't stand at the
edge of a super-charged hurricane and shout: "The focus groups say I
can't deal with you yet."

Others complain that
we who want to prevent the catastrophe mustn't be negative or scare
people; we should "stress the positive". Yes, there are positive
opportunities to grab: it's a chance for us all to come together in a
common cause and to be a great generation, remembered as heroes by
history. But it would be patronizing and bizarre to start there. In
1936, Winston Churchill and George Orwell warned about the rise of
Nazism. They didn't sugar-coat it. They didn't wrap it in feel-good
homilies. They treated people like adults. A terrible threat was
rising, and it had to be stopped. This is our position today. This is
our choice. We can make history – or we can commit suicide.

 

Johann Hari is a writer for the Independent. To read more of his articles, click here. For an archive of his writings on global warming, click here.