“facilis descensus Averni” and easy is the descent into climate change

In 118 days time delegates from all the countries in the world will meet in Copenhagen to try and reach agreement on a new climate change treaty. The old treaty, signed at Kyoto, has provided really no more than awareness on the world stage about the seriousness of the potential problem that a changing climate will bring us.

The United States, China and India either refused to sign up to Kyoto or were exempted from its obligations, so it would have been foolhardy to expect Kyoto to make a difference. Ultimately only people will determine whether the planet upon which we depend will be ravaged by a changed climate created by the effects of global warming. Nevertheless treaties may also play part.

So far treaties and national legislation, like the UK’s Climate Change Act and the new laws in Scotland tend to operate mostly by setting targets, rather than descending into the particulars of climate change. This means that we are given legislative targets while everyone scratches their heads trying to figure out how to meet those targets. The targets themselves make nothing illegal, except failing to meet the targets, and then there is illegality without fine or penalty.

Targets are half way between general principles and detailed prohibitions and requirements. There is no universal acceptance of principles, only a half universal acceptance for the need for some targets. Details are to be eschewed at all costs. A reason for this is that it is going to be impossible for 180 countries, each punching their weight and operating under principles of not very enlightened self interest, to agree either principles or measures, so targets are a compromise in the art of the possible.

Right now in Bonn in Germany there are over one thousand officials from many governments trying to agree a preliminary document that will form the basis for a new climate change treaty. Hardly a line of the 200 pages has been agreed, an there is little prospect for any major agreement in the coming week.

The truth is that the USA, China, Europe, India and Japan emit 75% of the greenhouses gases that threaten us. There is a strong case for just requiring some action against these nations, but that would be unfair on China and India who are low emitters in per capita terms, and whose emissions largely are made for goods consumed by USA, Europe and the rest of the developed world.

A hundred years ago an Englishman, who was probably the world’s most prolific writer, Frank Richards, was in his prime writing Billy Bunter stories in the Gem magazine. Every now and then Bunter was asked to construe Virgil’s Latin in class. Bunter, being both lazy and stupid rendered “facilis descensus Averni” as “Avernus descended easily”. In fact the Latin poet meant that descending into Avernus is easy. Avernus is a deep cold lake into which no one wants to go. In other words the Latin poet warned to slip into ruin or disaster is easy. What Virgil knew seems to have been now forgeotten. It easier to do nothing to slow down climate change. There may be enterprises of great piutch and moment but without action they are meaningless.

Perhaps we should point out to the governments whose officials are meeting so pointlessly in Bonn and where they will meet again with equal pointlessness in Copenhagen that the descent into climate change is easy. All we have to do is to avoid descending into the particulars of what warms the climate.

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