As she looked out over the lands from her Sandringham estate, Queen Elizabeth II came to a conclusion. It was 1995 and she had witnessed enough changes over the past decade to convince her that something was altering the environment, likely climate change. Spring was arriving three weeks earlier than it did when she was first crowned a half-century earlier. No one ever doubted her commitment to the Dominion, especially during times of war and tension, but this represented an entirely new challenge and she felt the responsibility to do something about it.
In her weekly meeting with Tony Blair at the time (2004), the monarch raised the issue of global warming and her concern that the American position of George W. Bush at the time was holding back the developed world from taking action. To Blair’s surprise she offered to help raise awareness.
Unexpectedly, the Queen presided over the British-German conference on climate change – a foray into the political realm that represented a marked departure from past protocol.
This was during an era prior to the small minority of scientists who spoke out against climate change, coupled with strong right-wing political support. As Queen Elizabeth presided over the conference in Berlin, a large number of multi-national companies were present, driven by the outcomes of the European preceding summer heat wave that resulted in 31,000 deaths. All this was before Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth captured world attention. There was just the sense that things were falling out-of-order and that climate change just might possibly be humankind’s most serious danger.
It’s important to note that at this time Tony Blair was being hammered by the Conservatives for not doing enough on climate change challenges and this formed part of the Queen’s persuasion to get her prime minister to start taking deeper reforms.
Blair brought that agenda to the Gleneagles G8 summit that year and pressed for some kind of harmonized global response. But his friend George Bush pushed back, insuring that a unanimous verdict was out of reach. For the other nations, despite certain doubts, there was the immense sense of danger and the need to develop some kind of coordinated response. Blair’s senior science advisor, Sir David King, observed at the time, “While uncertainties remained in our understanding of climate science, we knew enough to act.”
Bush flew home with the sense of satisfaction that he hadn’t opted into the consensus. But only five weeks later – August 29, 2005 – hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast and the American position looked suddenly weak. Yet the naysayers responded quickly and succeeded in placing doubts once again in American minds.
All this occurred in the last decade and nothing since has arisen to prove the Queen’s hunch wrong. Yet we appear more frozen in time. Robert Gifford, a University of Victoria psychologist, says that we have built mental barriers against climate change – what he calls “dragons of inaction.” We naturally block out complex problems that defy simple solutions. We also punish political voices that seek a mandate based on such complexities. In the end, we box ourselves in with simplistic reasonings and simplistic political solutions that don’t stand a grain of chance of being successful.
Polls show that an overwhelming majority of Canadian citizens believe in climate change and its deteriorating effects on our planet. Why, then, are they not pressing for action? Franklin Roosevelt used to say that, “There are many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still.” If options are open to us, why don’t we travel those paths?
The truth is that many of us do, but on an individual basis. We attempt to make responsible sustainable choices that reveal that we remain aware that some kind of action is required in the face of environmental danger. But surely we understand that such meritorious acts are not sufficient. We require broader policy options and that means political choices and joint citizen action.
Nothing in this past decade has shown us that Queen was wrong. Many would argue that her hunch as been confirmed many times over by the natural calamities that have occurred on a regular basis. Voltaire use to say that, “While men argue, Nature acts.” This is becoming increasingly true in our own lifetime.
The real challenge before us isn’t whether climate change is man-made or not; most of us believe it is to greater and greater degrees. The issue before us is if we will bring climate change reality into our daily habits of consciousness. Will we permit it to make a difference in how we shop, where we travel, how we travel, and even who we vote for? If we can’t make that personal journey, then we shall never, as a people, make that public journey. A conscience is a wonderful thing to possess, but if it is alerting us to danger and the importance of public choice and we refuse to come together with others for society’s protection, then what good did it do us to possess a conscience in the first place. To quote Voltaire again: “Science without conscience is the soul’s perdition.”
The Queen gets it. Some 98% of scientists get it. We get it. There is no individual way out of this mess. We must act in concert to press for the public choices that are the only possible way to clean the future for our kids.