As Britain battened down the hatches ahead of last week's fatal storms scientists gathered at a joint press conference of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) in London and Washington DC to give symbolic confirmation to the sense of impending doom that defines the meta-narrative of our times. The magazine announced that the Doomsday Clock that has famously adorned its Chicago offices since 1947 would have its minute hand moved two minutes closer to midnight.
The decision to tick the clock forward was made following a meeting of the magazine's directors and affiliated scientists - including Professor Stephen Hawking and president of the Royal Society Martin Rees - where it was decided that for the first time climate change should join nuclear war as the gravest threat faced by mankind.
In a statement BAS said that while nuclear proliferation was contributing to the growing sense of global insecurity, climate change now posed an almost equally serious risk. "The effects may be less dramatic in the short term than the destruction that could be wrought by nuclear explosions," the statement read. "But over the next three to four decades climate change could cause irremediable harm to the habitats upon which human societies depend for survival."
Two days later and reports emerged that increases in atmospheric CO2 last year were significantly higher than expected. The sharp increase does not match the steady rises in green house gas emissions recorded over the past year suggesting that as the planet continues to warm the ability of forests and oceans to absorb CO2 is deteriorating. In short we have even less time than scientists thought to reduce our carbon emissions. It looks like BAS will have to move the minute hand forward again.
Faced with these scientific assessments it is all too tempting to adopt the Private Frazer mentality and accept that we're doomed. But there is also a silver lining to this gloomy outlook and it is not completely illogical to argue that these terrifying predictions also present our last best hope of survival.
In the same week that the scientists were predicting disaster and the gales were wreaking havoc both Tesco and Marks & Spencer pledged to spend millions on environmentally sustainable business models. They are just the latest in a long and growing line of firms that are now publicly committed to reducing their carbon emissions. Many reasons have been put forward for this remarkable volte face in the global business community's attitude towards the environment, including rising energy prices, increasingly robust legislation, and heightened consumer concerns. But while all of these factors have played a part none are truly sufficient to drive so many global companies to overhaul their entire operations.
The fact is that these factors have been in place to a greater or lesser extent for well over twenty years. Lowering costs by improving energy efficiency has always made sound financial sense; environmental red tape has been getting steadily tighter for decades; and public concerns about the environment were in the mainstream long before the major corporations took any action – I remember myself and my classmates being scared by global warming when first taught about it twenty years ago at primary school.
No, for the real driving force behind the green business movement we have to look back to those scientific doom-mongers. It is no coincidence that real action on global warming has coincided with the moment when the predicted dates for climatic disaster have been pulled within the expected life spans of the world's political and corporate leaders.
It is the selfish and unimaginative side of human nature that has got us into this mess, but we are also ingenuous and committed when it comes to their own survival. The pleas of scientists during the eighties and nineties to think of the kids fell on death ears, but now with 2050 slated as the date we can expect to inhabit an unrecognisably hostile planet, anyone in their forties or younger is realising there is a good chance they'll be around to see the results of their actions.
And even if people are inclined to disbelieve the scientists they also have the evidence of their own eyes in the rapidly changing weather patterns of recent years. In terms of driving our transition towards greener societies the El Nino Effect that is predicted to warm up the atmosphere still further this year could not have come at a more opportune time.
It is this sudden sense of political and corporate urgency that suggests that the massive, but not impossible, changes needed to develop low-carbon economies may prove both achievable and economically profitable. And, most encouragingly of all, these new initiatives, be it Tesco's pledge to label products with their carbon footprint, M&S' commitment to go carbon neutral, the EU's emissions trading scheme, or even President Bush's embryonic plan to embrace bio-fuels, are being driven by that most positive, motivating and unifying of human emotions – fear.
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