Political leaders are driven by a desire for power. They will tend to follow whatever is politically expedient in order to gain power. Right now, it is politically expedient only to make token efforts to try and prevent climate change, without making the electorate fore-go habits to which they have become accustomed.
But leaders are also driven by vanity, and have a powerful desire to be seen well by ‘posterity’ or the ‘history books’. Just look how long Tony Blair spent, while leaving office, in trying to explain his ‘legacy’, or at George W. Bush’s mea culpa last press conference.
This, it seems to me, is one way political leaders might be persuaded to take dramatic action now on climate change: scientists explain to them very clearly what will happen if the level of CO2 does not fall, they explain very clearly the huge loss of life this will cause,and the actions that need to be taken now if this situation is to be avoided.
And then you tell them that history will judge them. If you consider the infamy in which Adolf Hitler is now held: Hitler was responsible for the deaths of, how many, 40 million people?
That is, unfortunately, a drop in the ocean compared to how many will die in the coming decades if this generation of political leaders fail to do what is necessary.
The terrible suffering of World War II was, on the whole, confined to a generation. If the world warms by 4-6 degrees, the suffering will be felt by many generations, all of whom will look back to the beginning of the 21st century, when political leaders were clearly warned what was going to happen, and what was needed to be done to avoid it, and who failed to do what was necessary.
What this means is, it’s a terrible time to be a politician. Never has the chalice of power been so poisoned. On the one hand, you have to tell an electorate grown complacent with prosperity that they must radically alter their lifestyles and fore-go many activities they now take for granted. As a result, they may very well be voted out of office, or even laughed out of office, for doing do.
On the other hand, if they don’t do this, their names will be mud for decades, even centuries.
They will say ‘we didn’t know’ or ‘it wasn’t politically possible’ or ‘we didn’t have enough time’. But the history books will show that they were told what needed to be done, and they failed to act.
On the other hand, if they do act, if they finally recognise the gravity of the threat facing us, explain to the electorate what needs to be done, and begin leading their electorates through the necessary changes, they will win a place in the history books as great as Churchill, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King .
The line between historic hero or historic catastrophe is very thin right now, and it is not leaders’ response to the credit crunch which will decide their place in the eyes of posterity.