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While Washington Slept

By Mark Hertsgaard (Vanity Fair) - April 17, 2006

The Queen of England is afraid. International C.E.O.’s are nervous. And the scientific establishment is loud and clear. If global warming isn’t halted, rising sea levels could submerge coastal cities by 2100. So how did this virtual certainty get labeled a “liberal hoax”?

Ten months before Hurricane Katrina left much of New Orleans underwater, Queen Elizabeth II had a private conversation with Prime Minister Tony Blair about George W. Bush. The Queen’s tradition of meeting once a week with Britain’s elected head of government to discuss matters of state—usually on Tuesday evenings in Buckingham Palace and always alone, to ensure maximum confidentiality—goes back to 1952, the year she ascended the throne. In all that time, the contents of those chats rarely if ever leaked.

So it was extraordinary when London’s Observer reported, on October 31, 2004, that the Queen had “made a rare intervention in world politics” by telling Blair of “her grave concerns over the White House’s stance on global warming.” The Observer did not name its sources, but one of them subsequently spoke to Vanity Fair.

“The Queen first of all made it clear that Buckingham Palace would be happy to help raise awareness about the climate problem,” says the source, a high-level environmental expert who was briefed about the conversation. “[She was] definitely concerned about the American position and hoped the prime minister could help change [it].”

Press aides for both the Queen and the prime minister declined to comment on the meeting, as is their habit. But days after the Observer story appeared, the Queen indeed raised awareness by presiding over the opening of a British-German conference on climate change, in Berlin. “I might just point out, that’s a pretty unusual thing for her to do,” says Sir David King, Britain’s chief scientific adviser. “She doesn’t take part in anything that would be overtly political.” King, who has briefed the Queen on climate change, would not comment on the Observer report except to say, “If it were true, it wouldn’t surprise me.”

With spring arriving in England three weeks earlier than it did 50 years ago, the Queen could now see signs of climate change with her own eyes. Sandringham, her country estate north of London, overlooks Britain’s premier bird-watching spot: the vast North Sea wetlands known as the Wash. A lifelong outdoorswoman, the Queen had doubtless observed the V-shaped flocks of pink-footed geese that descend on the Wash every winter. But in recent years, says Mark Avery, conservation director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, she also would have seen a species new to the area: little egrets. These shiny white birds are native to Southern Europe, Avery says, “but in the last 5 to 10 years they have spread very rapidly to Northern Europe. We can’t prove this is because of rising temperatures, but it sure looks like it.”

Temperatures are rising, the Queen learned from King and other scientists, because greenhouse gases are trapping heat in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, the most prevalent of such gases, is released whenever fossil fuels are burned or forests catch fire. Global warming, the scientists explained, threatens to raise sea levels as much as three feet by the end of the 21st century, thanks to melting glaciers and swollen oceans. (Water expands when heated.)

This would leave much of eastern England, including areas near Sandringham, underwater. Global warming would also bring more heat waves like the one in the summer of 2003 that killed 31,000 people across Europe. It might even shut down the Gulf Stream, the flow of warm water from the Gulf of Mexico that gives Europe its mild climate. If the Gulf Stream were to halt—and it has already slowed 30 percent since 1992—Europe’s temperatures would plunge, agriculture would collapse, London would no longer feel like New York but like Anchorage.

The Queen, says King, “got it” on climate change, and she wasn’t alone. “Everyone in this country, from the political parties to the scientific establishment, to the Archbishop of Canterbury, to our oil companies and the larger business community, has come to a popular consensus about climate change—a sense of alarm and a conviction that action is needed now, not in the future,” says Tony Juniper, executive director of the British arm of the environmental group Friends of the Earth.

At the time of his meeting with the Queen, Blair was being attacked on climate change from all ideological sides, with even the Conservatives charging that he was not doing enough. Yet Blair’s statements on the issue went far beyond those of most world leaders. He had called the Kyoto Protocol, which has been ratified by 162 countries and requires industrial nations to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions 5 percent below 1990 levels, “not radical enough.” The world’s climate scientists, Blair pointed out, had estimated that 60 percent cuts in emissions were needed, and he committed Britain to reaching that goal by 2050.

But it wouldn’t matter how much Britain cut its greenhouse-gas emissions if other nations didn’t do the same. The U.S. was key, not only because it was the world’s largest emitter but because its refusal to reduce emissions led China, India, Brazil, and other large developing countries to ask why they should do so. All this Blair had also said publicly. In 2001 he criticized the Bush administration for withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol. In 2004 he said it was essential to bring the U.S. into the global effort against climate change, despite its opposition to Kyoto.

It was no secret that Bush opposed mandatory emissions limits, but Blair, who had risked his political future to back the deeply unpopular war in Iraq, was uniquely positioned to lobby the president. Bush owed him one. At the same time, Blair needed to show his domestic audience that he could stand up to Bush, that he wasn’t the presidential “poodle” his critics claimed.

To compel Bush to engage the issue, Blair made climate change a lead agenda item at the July 2005 meeting of the Group of 8, the alliance of the world’s eight richest nations. A month before the meeting, which was held at Gleneagles, in Scotland, Blair flew to Washington to see Bush face-to-face. That same day, the national academies of science of all the G-8 nations, as well as those of China, India, and Brazil, released a joint statement declaring that climate change was a grave problem that required immediate action.

On the morning of July 7, the summit was interrupted by the shocking news that four suicide bombers had set off explosions in London, killing 56 people. Blair rushed to the scene, but he returned that night, still determined to secure an agreement.