Barely a week passes without another warning that the world is sleepwalking towards climate-change catastrophe. But is anyone listening? This week Maria Fernanda Espinosa, president of the United Nations General Assembly, delivered an uncompromising message. While in the UAE for the World Government Summit, held in Dubai, she gave an exclusive interview to The National, criticising world governments for doing far too little to stave off disaster. Also in Dubai was the Star Wars actor Harrison Ford, joining the battle to save planet Earth. He appealed to governments, including his own, to abandon economic self-interest for the sake of humanity.
Laurent Fabius, the former French prime minister who forged the 2015 Paris Agreement on limiting global warming, condemned as selfish leaders who “put the next election ahead of the next generation”. He pointed directly at US President Donald Trump, who has scrapped America’s commitment to the agreement. But, with or without the US on board, it is now clear to anyone prepared to face facts that climate change is a crisis of such magnitude that only the most radical of solutions can halt it.
All efforts at mitigation must, of course, be applauded. Ms Espinosa praised the UAE for its commitment to the development of renewable energy resources. Around the world, recycling is becoming the norm. Hope can also be found in the increasing awareness of young people – in the UK this Friday thousands of school pupils will take part in dozens of Youth Strike 4 Climate events, echoing similar movements around the world. But no amount of recycling, doing away with plastic bags or switching to electric cars is going to save us. Similarly, no single nation can hope to make an appreciable impact on its own. The world is facing a crisis that requires a global response and, with the clock running down, it is time for an honest reappraisal of what we mean by "sustainable development".
Over the past 40 years, consumption of natural gas, crude oil and coal has doubled to an all-time high. Only on three occasions has this trend been significantly, if only temporarily, reversed – during the three recessions between 1974 and 2008. The wholly unavoidable, if politically unpalatable conclusion is that cities, economies and nations can no longer go on competitively expanding at a rate with which alternative energy cannot hope to keep pace. If the world is to be saved, its leaders must quickly find the courage to think the unthinkable and make tough, unpopular decisions. If they don’t, it could be too late.