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The challenge of overcoming climate change has been likened to the challenge of the second world war by Gordon Brown(1), or war more generally by others(2). It is easy to see why this comparison has been used. Everyone in the country knows what a huge challenge the Second World War was, and the sacrifices that each and every person had to make to help the cause, as well as in the work required to rebuild after it was over. It is hoped that comparing this with the challenge of minimising global warming will make people understand the size of the problem we are facing, and persuade them that they will have to help.

In trying (but not trying very hard, it must be said, – and certainly not leading by example) to explain to the British public that dealing with climate change may require sacrificing a few creature comforts, Mr. Brown is indicating that he’s finally starting to realise the gravity of the problem, and the scale of the required solutions.

However, if he takes a few moments to think about the World War 2 comparison, he will realise that persuading the public this time is going to be infinitely harder than it was for Winston Churchill. There are a few main reasons for this –

Reason 1. – You can’t see carbon dioxide.
In the Second World War you could see the enemy. It was a nasty man in Germany with lots of weapons and a big army. Showing people what they were up against was nice and easy, and it made it a lot easier to convince people that they all needed to do their bit and be prepared to make a few sacrifices in the war effort.
You can’t see carbon dioxide (or other greenhouse gases) in the air. They float around menacingly and gradually increase the temperature of the globe bit by bit until it’s too late, and we are committed to runaway climate change regardless of what we do. Before long the price of food will rocket, diseases will spread, etc. etc. and if that wasn’t enough the poor middle-Englanders will suffer from the mother of all hosepipe bans. At the moment it is difficult for many people to see the connection between flying across the world on holiday and millions of people suffering in extreme weather a few years later. If we could see the whole process it would make it a lot easier to convince people. But unfortunately we can’t.

Reason 2. – The general public don’t see it as their problem.
This follows on from problem one. Everyone could see the horrible things that were going to happen to them if we didn’t fight the war, and that made them want to fight it. This was mainly because the nasty things were going to happen to them.At the moment the British Public seems to think that climate change isn’t really going to harm them much, and therefore it isn’t at the top of their to-do list. There are a few reasons for this.

First is what I call the polar bear problem. Yes, polar bears are facing extinction due to climate change. Yes, that is a terrible thing. But the more that polar bears are used as the representative image of climate change the less the average person is going to want to do anything about it, because polar bears come a very long way down the list of peoples priorities in life.
Secondly, most people that know anything about climate change realise that the developing countries are going to be hit much harder than us in the developed world (3). What they may not realise is that a) this is likely to be less and less evident the more that temperatures rise and b) the entire scale is serious – we might not have as many problems as in the developing world, but the ones we do have are going to be more than enough to try and deal with.
Thirdly, nobody wants to fight this war because they are completely dependent on the cause of the problem.

Adding to all of this is the fact that the Governments own actions are confusing the general public – with concerned, proactive rhetoric on climate change, and simultaneous contradictory actions building more coal power plants and expanding airports (see previous post 22nd Nov. 2007). They are effectively saying “We need to go to war…….errrr…….but some of us are going to welcome the enemy with open arms and help them to win…….okay?”

Problem 3. – It isn’t going to be easy to see the outcome.
It was obvious when the war had been won. Well done everyone, we did it. We succeeded. Now we can start to pick up the pieces and not have to worry about that again for a while. That’s not going to happen with climate change. It takes a very long time for the atmosphere to sort itself out and come to a new balance, and it isn’t going to be obvious when it has. If the end is clear, then it will mean we have lost this war.

The World War 2 comparison is a good one, because everyone knows the huge effort required then, which will help them to understand what is required now. At the moment it isn’t obvious to the general public why this needs to happen – and therefore they won’t be very understanding when someone says they can’t fly across the world for their holiday, or they have to stop using their car.

People do not care about polar bears enough to make them stop flying. We need to make it clear that climate change is going to affect them – and it could make their lives a lot more miserable than it will be if they have to walk to work and not fly to Thailand on holiday.

At the rate we are going, by the time people realise we are at war we will have already lost. We cannot allow this to happen.

References
1. Gordon Brown speech on 19th November 2007 at the WWF.
2. Climate change is like ‘World War Three’ – Telegraph.co.uk, 5th Nov. 2007.
3. Discussed briefly in the UN Human Development Report 2007/08.

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