The science of climate change has accumulated over many decades to become compelling, but the politics has changed with such a startling suddenness that previously skeptical leaders in Canada, as well as Australia and the United States, are scrambling to catch up with the firming convictions of their electorates that serious action is urgently needed.
Recent reports by Nicholas Stern in the United Kingdom and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), chaired by India's Rajendra Pachauri, were major catalysts for the dramatic mood swing in world public opinion.
Global climate change poses significant risks to the planet, and all nations have an important stake in addressing this new threat that is already sufficient to make collective action both necessary and urgent.
The IPCC, drawing on about 2,500 scientists worldwide, has confirmed in stark figures and dry words the gravity of the problem.
Based on scale, magnitude and irreversibility, global climate change constitutes a critical security issue.
There is a need for action by all and a need for action now. Delay in acting on climate change now will mean that the costs of addressing it later, according to the Stern report, will be significantly greater. The technical challenges will also mount with growing complexity.
Dealing with climate change is difficult because its dimensions are cross-sectoral, while international organizations, processes and mechanisms are limited by their mandates and portfolio boundaries. The puzzle is a global common problem, but government representatives act in their own national interest.
We offer a two-track way forward. First, following the wise maxim of former U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower, the way to solve a difficult problem is to make it even bigger (which then brings attention and resources). We propose to change the question to the broader crisis of energy security.
Secondly, we propose a new grouping that is more broadly representative than the G8, yet not so prone to policy paralysis as the universal United Nations.
Along with steps to combat climate change, action is also needed now on energy efficiency, conservation and diversification and adaptation. New technological innovations are urgently needed. Governments must encourage private sector efforts on research and development (R&D). They should use policy tools, including taxation, to enhance the market signals which provide incentives for long-term investments in those technological innovations, new energy-use applications and energy-producing facilities that will have significant impacts on carbon emissions and climate change.
To accommodate future population and economic growth, new methods are required for the development of alternative sources of energy supply to reduce global reliance on oil and conventional coal, including greater use of nuclear energy and hydroelectric power, even while promoting the use of non-fossil fuels and renewable sources of energy.
An intermediate grouping -- something between the G8 and the UN, which would include China and India -- is best suited to deal with the challenges of climate change and energy security.
On the second track, of the best forum for making collective decisions on difficult issues, the sad fact is that the distribution of hard and soft power in the real world is increasingly disconnected from the distribution of decision-making authority in intergovernmental organizations. The UN is too large, cumbersome and unwieldy, with powerful centrifugal pressures overwhelming collective decision making.
Some of the crucial decisions regarding Kosovo in 1999 were made at the G8 summit in Bonn, not in the UN Security Council. East Timor was handled in the informal corridors of the APEC summit in Auckland. Both were subsequently endorsed by the Security Council to give them the necessary veneer of global legitimacy. For actually making the hard decisions, the informality and personalized style of summit meetings between leaders who know and are comfortable with one another cannot be substituted in the formal forum of the UN as an intergovernmental organization.
Meeting together at summits, the world's prime ministers and presidents have a unique role to play.
They can provide a collective vision and catalyze collective action. They are not limited by individual departmental mandates. They can resolve inter-ministerial trade-offs and transcend sectional interests.
But the G8 -- which includes Canada, the United States, Japan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Russia -- is a self-anointed exclusive club of the rich and powerful. It simply is not credible any longer to exclude China and India from decisions on global issues. Yet neither belongs to the G8, and India is not a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
Drawing India and China into a new summit grouping that bridges the world's north-south divide would serve also to make them more responsible and responsive while giving greater voice to the global south.
The evolution of an existing informal intergovernmental process is more likely to succeed than the comprehensive reform of existing organizations: for all the effort expended in UN reform over many decades, the results are decidedly underwhelming.
Reflecting this, key leaders have taken to talking of the formula of G8-plus-5 -- with the addition of Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa. But there are two problems with this -- first that the five would be guests at the table, and would not be involved in setting the rules and the agenda, would have no sense of ownership, and would feel no sense of responsibility for the decisions and outcomes.
Secondly, the group does not include any Islamic country. Adding Egypt, say, gives us a leaders' group of 14. Can the G8 be enlarged into an L14 as a new, important pillar of institutionalized multilateralism?
How might the current hot topic of climate change be handled by such an intermediate grouping between the G8 and the UN?
The central question facing leaders, parliamentarians, and policy-makers is who is going to pay for the costs of addressing global climate change and how the costs will be shared.
There is a special responsibility on the part of advanced industrial countries, which account for the largest share of the current levels of carbon emissions in the atmosphere. Yet they insist on meaningful binding commitments from developing countries who query why they should not aspire to raising their own standards of living, and why any sacrifices should not be borne by developed countries.
Both industrial and emerging market economies need to acknowledge their common but differentiated responsibilities, to accept an equivalence of burden-sharing, to see that all countries take national action on climate change, and to negotiate an effective regime aimed at stabilizing global levels of carbon emissions within agreed acceptable targets.
Because current levels of affluence in industrial countries have been directly associated with cumulative carbon emissions, they must provide financial and technical support to developing countries for them to achieve sustainable economic growth and social equity.
Leaders, parliaments and policy-makers from L14 countries can make an important contribution to global co-operation on climate change by channeling results of their collective efforts into the UN-centred negotiations so as not to lose international legitimacy.
But only world leaders can confront some major inconvenient truths: past emissions continuing to change global climate for several decades more, a rising demand for oil, energy as the engine of development growth, and the intensifying volatility in the Middle East all need to be addressed in the short term of the next decade alongside the major inconvenient truth over the course of the 21st century. Both the developing and the developed countries have urgent energy needs now that somehow must be reconciled with longer-term goals of halting and reversing carbon emissions and global warming.
Of course, such a new L14 grouping would not fade and disappear after resolving the international impasse over climate change. It could be just as useful in breaking some other major global deadlocks like the Doha trade talks and nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, to name just two more important issues.