Martin Rees: I think climate change raises special problems because, first of all, the science is still rather uncertain. Everyone agrees that the temperature on average is going up and that, more importantly, that rise in temperature is going to trigger a big global change in weather patterns, The regions where you have the monsoons, where you have droughts, et cetera, will change. And this will be a disruptive effect on the climate, far more rapid than any natural changes in climate that have happened in the past. But, of course, these timescales, although very short in an astronomical context, are long in a political context, and we’re talking about what will happen in the next few decades and what might make the lives of people now just born — who will be alive in the 22nd century — worse than they are now.
And it’s very hard to persuade politicians to do something now which will not benefit the here and now — between now and the next election — but will have an effect on the lives of children now born who will be alive at the end of the century, and also on the lives of people in the low parts of the world, who will be more affected than we are in Europe and North America.
So that’s why it’s difficult to deal with because, obviously, the focus of most action is the urgent and the parochial rather than the long-term. And for that reason, I think it’s very hard to keep dealing with climate change high on the agenda. I personally think we should be prepared to pay an insurance premium now, as it were, to remove a potentially serious risk from the lives of future generations. But it’s hard to make that point. We’ve got to think of ways in which we can keep that on the agenda.