Labour MP Michael Meacher set out a cataclysmic vision of the dangers posed by climate change in the second keynote address, concentrating on the devastating impact it could have on life and health. “If we do nothing, global warming will kill billions this century,” he said.

The former environment minister began his warning saying recent reports from across the world showed compelling evidence from scientists that the world is going through a profound and dangerous change in climate.

“In particular, we face a runaway of melting Arctic sea ice, a shutdown of global ocean circulation systems in the north Atlantic, massive methane releases from melting permafrost in Siberia and Alaska, more violent hurricanes everywhere and mega-droughts from northern China to the American west. And these are just some of the more prominent trends.”

He added that the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that something in the order of 160,000 people die each year as result of the effects of climate change, notably from malaria, dysentery and malnutrition. “That is 50 times those who died in the Twin Towers and this time, it is every year.”

Some people say this is remote from Britain. They think it will not affect us and anyway, it is only in the distant future. “Well, they are wrong. George Bush’s top climate modeller, Jim Hansen, said that we have at the most, have 10 years to make the drastic cuts in emission that may head off climate change.”

Continuing the apocalyptic message, Meacher cited a UN report that warned of rising sea levels, desertification and shrinking fresh water supplies which will create up to 50 million refuges by the end of this decade, while research from the London School of Hygiene and Topical Medicines warns that out of 10 of the most dangerous vector-borne diseases, nine will get worse, especially malaria – because of climate change.

He continued, “Food supplies worldwide will be disrupted by intensified droughts which have already been seen in the southern hemisphere, and industrial agriculture in the north will be prone to a surge in pests from warmer climates. And what is really worrying is that climate disaster is in its early stages and it is not linear, it is a dynamic process of intensification.”

Is this inevitable and irreversible, asked Meacher. “It can still be slowed and over time halted,” he responded, “but it requires much more radical changes in our transportation, our economic system and lifestyles.”

Scientists said that a 70% reduction is needed in carbon emissions by 2050, but no country has developed a policy to deal with this level of reduction, and past performance on the issue was so far has been poor. Emissions have increased in six out of the last nine years, he said. “I find it almost incomprehensible that the greatest disaster that has ever confronted us is staring us in the face, and so far so very little has been done in relation to the scale of the threat. Nor is there any excuse.”

Although the UK has only 1% of the world’s population and accounts for 2% of world emissions, it should take a lead on the issue said Meacher, although he also accepted that Britain could only do something effectively within an international arrangement tackling climate change.

“Some say this is all in the future, but they are wrong. We have at most 10 years to drastically cut emissions. We need greater urgency. There needs to be a change in mindset at all levels among government, industry and populations which has to be so sweeping as to be breathtaking.”

Pic number – 8017 or 8024 - Michael Meacher

Andrew Holt is features editor of Insurance Times.