The Crisis We Forgot

In a Daily Beast exclusive, Tony Blair urges Obama to tackle the climate change catastrophe—even as the economic meltdown dominates the agenda.

To a large extent, 2009 will be characterized by our efforts to head off the worst consequences of the economic catastrophe. But 2009 should also be the year we summon the will and wit to conclude a new treaty on Climate Change, one which will have all major economies, including America as a signatory, one that is radical and realistic.

Some say that due to the economic crisis, action on the environment should be postponed. But either the climate is changing or it isn’t. If it is—and the scientific consensus on this is now vast—we cannot ignore it. To do so would be to multiply the risks to our future economy as well as environment. Reasons of energy security also compel us to act.

I would argue that the current economic woes provide us not with an excuse for inaction but a reason for acting.

It is now, right now, at the instant when our thoughts are centred on the economic challenge that we must not set to one side the challenge of global warming, but instead resolve to meet it and put the world on a path to sustainable growth for the future. Now is the moment when our responsibility to future generations must be answered. The decisions of 2009 will determine the world of 2029 or 2049 and beyond. Those decisions must be right.

What is more, I would argue that the current economic woes provide us not with an excuse for inaction but a reason for acting. Let us stimulate economic growth by investing in alternative energy and energy efficiency; and let us invest now in these times of lower carbon price to prepare for the times when that price rises again. Let us put economic growth and combating climate change in alliance not opposition.

President Obama’s economic stimulus package, recently approved by the Senate, includes substantial support for clean energy and energy efficiency, recognizing that these investments will not only be good for jobs and economic recovery but also improve the country’s energy security and begin to cut greenhouse gas emissions. China, Korea, and others are following suit.

Yet as we speak, emissions are rising, even though the means of transformation, the technological potential and the scientific knowledge are there before us. This is not a problem without a solution. The creativity, ingenuity, and innovation of humanity are on hand to solve humanity's self-made problem. But we need to place that brainpower within a framework of global action that incentivizes, encourages, and propels it forward. Without a global agreement, the task cannot be done. We cannot wait for things to take their course. We must change course to do it, do it together and do it now.

And this agreement needs to involve all major emitting countries, from both the developed and developing world. Action by one group without the other will not be enough to stop dangerous climate change. While there is no doubt that the rich countries must take the lead, developing countries—notably China and other emerging economies—will also have to play a major part. Action—even according to differentiated obligations—has to be action done in common, on a global basis, if it is to be effective.

I do not understate the complexity and sensitivity of achieving such a global agreement. American and European business faces the toughest of times. China and India have a complete and justifiable determination to maintain strong economic growth so that the hundreds of millions that languish still in poverty, even as part of their economies push into the first world, are lifted from the mire. The question is not to grow or not to grow; but how we grow.

The primary objective of any global deal will be to save our environment for the future. But it would, in doing so, result in something else: a resurgence of belief that multilateral agreement is possible; that nations working in concert can produce results. It may well be, also, that in striking a deal on climate change, the strength of the relationship between America and China can be demonstrated and deepened.

President Obama has already made very clear the importance he places on U.S. leadership on tackling global climate change. Over the course of 2009, U.S. policymakers will debate U.S. climate policy at the local, state, and national level. This debate will generate the principles for climate legislation alongside policies on the economy and energy security. Through the progress it makes in formulating its climate policy, the U.S. will send an important signal to the United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen in December 2009.

However, building the case for urgent action on climate change in the face of the economic crisis will be no easy task. Fostering public confidence will be crucial. Congress will not take ambitious action on climate change unless they are convinced that their economic concerns have been fully recognized and legislation will be designed to address this. That is why I am chairing a meeting in Congress today—“U.S. domestic action—a Global Economic perspective”—sponsored by Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), John McCain (R-AZ), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), on Capitol Hill. This event will bring together U.S. business leaders, governors, economists and global climate leaders.

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We must move forward, despite the recent calamities and pressing challenges in the times to come. If we do this, we can look upon the future not with fear but with hope, hope born of confidence that history never poses problems that humankind cannot resolve.

Tony Blair is founder of the Breaking the Climate Deadlock initiative to work for a new global deal for a low carbon future.