Ladies and Gentlemen, I do just want to begin by thanking the Museum of Science and Industry for inviting me to this remarkable exhibition of great British engineering. Indeed, I hope that some of you may have noticed that I arrived today on the Royal Train pulled by the new Tornado A1 Steam locomotive, which I named at a ceremony in York last year when my wife and I were completely covered in soot in the process! The A1 is an enduring celebration of our steam heritage and the brilliance of those men who created these magnificent feats of engineering and those modern day engineering enthusiasts who spent twenty years lovingly and painstakingly building it from scratch, and so I thought it a fitting way in which to travel to this exhibition.
Walking into this Hall is like stepping into the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. Seeing the wonderful working replica of Stephenson’s Rocket – which arguably started it all – the pumps and the coal and steam-powered machinery that quite literally powered the transformation of every aspect of life, no one can fail to appreciate the importance of the Industrial Revolution to Britain and to the entire world. But I trust we do all know that these wonderful innovations carried with them a long-term cost that nobody at the time could possibly have foreseen. Now, alas, that cost is all too obvious, and I rather hope you don’t need me to tell you that we now have to reckon this cost very firmly into the equation before it is all too late – if, that is, we want to make sure the future for our children and their grandchildren is as bright and exciting as it was when these great machines were first unveiled.
It is certainly the case that these astonishing achievements in engineering changed the way every man, woman and child in this country lived. Suddenly, food could be grown and harvested on an unimaginable scale; clothing, and a whole variety of products could be produced by machines with a speed and efficiency that had been simply unthinkable. That, of course, led to people leaving the land and moving to the cities to find work in the factories that were creating the goods and wealth that would, in so many ways, improve people’s lives beyond measure. No city was more at the very heart of that revolution than this great city of Manchester and that is why I wanted to come here today to announce a new initiative that I hope might help all of us prepare for the next great transformation we face...
At the end of last year, I was invited to give a speech at the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit. Heads of State and Environment Ministers had gathered from all corners of the Earth to try to hammer out a deal that would help us avoid catastrophic Climate Change. Despite what you might think from having read and heard the reports of the Conference, some progress was made, not least concerning funding to help stop the destruction of the world’s Rainforests, a subject on which I have been working for the last two years.
But even with all these countries coming together, it is clear that we are still a long way from agreeing on the changes necessary to secure a sustainable future – or even agreeing on the urgency with which these changes must be implemented.
I have given much thought as to why this might be, especially in the face of such overwhelming scientific evidence. And, ladies and gentlemen please be in no doubt that the evidence of long-term and potentially irreversible changes to our world is utterly overwhelming. I have watched with growing dismay and alarm the glee with which the sceptics have leapt upon the recent news stories that question the science that climate change is Man-made and suggesting it is nothing more than a myth.
Well, if it is but a myth, and the global scientific community is involved in some sort of conspiracy, why is it then that around the globe sea levels are more than six inches higher than they were 100 years ago? This isn’t an opinion – it is a fact. It is also a fact that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are forty per cent higher now than they were before the industrial revolution. And, clearly, the Government of the Maldives does not believe climate change is a myth, otherwise why would it be making plans to move its entire population off the islands because of the threat of the rising sea level?
And what about the really alarming messages that scientists and explorers like Pen Hadow bring back from the Polar regions? The trouble is that they are not just about short-term changes – though they can provide a valuable wake-up call – they are about the long-term trends that cannot be dismissed as a “blip” or explained away as “natural cycles.” It is these long-term changes to our world that we ignore at our peril. And it is, let’s face it, the only world we have. We can’t just throw this one away, as we do so much else, and somehow expect to zoom off to another intergalactically convenient one. The stakes could not be higher.
Scientific concerns about the potential consequences of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere go back more than fifty years. But to those who seek to persuade us that there is no such thing as climate change, in the face of the now overwhelming peer-reviewed scientific evidence, I would ask just one question. Are you prepared to take the risk of being wrong? Let me explain. If the scientific predictions are proved correct, it will be the poorest people on this planet who will suffer first and worst. In fact, they are already suffering in those other parts of the world that, for us, are out of sight and out of mind.
Just think about what will happen if and when the glaciers of the Himalayas and the Andes dwindle away – and it is irrefutable that they are dwindling. The agricultural systems of entire continents will be dramatically affected. Climate change will also bring more extreme weather events to many parts of the world, causing ever more frequent havoc for those least able to cope.
I don’t know about you, ladies and gentlemen, but I happen to mind very much about the sort of world in which my children and grandchildren – and yours – will be living. For all of them, I believe we have a great responsibility to do the right thing by them and so I, for one, am not prepared to play some sort of Russian roulette with their futures.
That is why I remain determined to do all I can to encourage people to think about how we can best change the way in which we live to stabilise our climate and secure those ecosystems and the associated richness of their biodiversity – such as the Rainforests and the world’s oceans – on which human life depends. To do this, I think we need to overcome the fear that environmental measures will be expensive and will somehow return us to the Dark Ages, destroying all the improvements that were first given to us by the Industrial Revolution.
Yet this reaction is hardly surprising, if the only way we explain sustainability is to tell people that their energy bills will rise, and their cost of food will spiral together with the price of petrol. A cursory look at most of the web sites that talk about climate change will reveal that it is full of this negative language: “stop,” “cut,” “reduce,” “don’t.”
That is only one way of looking at it. Far too few talk about the potential for a sustainable future to be better and more rewarding – both for us and for Nature – than the lives we lead now. This potential needs to be communicated across the country and, indeed, across the world. Just how much are we persuading people that a “sustainability revolution” is a good thing?
In 1849, at the very zenith of the Industrial Revolution, my great great great Grandfather, Prince Albert, held a meeting at the Royal Society of Arts to call for a Great Exhibition, which would demonstrate to people all the wonders of the modern world. He saw that by showing people the future in an exciting way, they would not be afraid of it and instead would see the advantages it could bring. He said the Great Exhibition would, if nothing else, be, and I quote : “a new starting point from which all nations would be able to direct their further exertions.”
Well, Ladies and Gentlemen, as we stand on the threshold of a sustainability revolution, it is that starting point that we need to find once again so that we can show people the potential which the future holds; to excite them about the opportunities a sustainability revolution offers. I am not for one minute suggesting that we can recreate the Great Exhibition, but I am very pleased to announce that, this year, with the help of some generous and forward-thinking partners, I am launching a new initiative which will demonstrate to people that “starting point” towards a sustainable future.
Called simply “START,” this initiative will echo the idea behind the Great Exhibition by showing people the technologies, techniques and principles that exist now, which will not only improve our lives, but also help the planet sustain us, all by operating more in harmony with Nature’s processes and cycles than against them. It will neither lecture nor hector; but instead will demonstrate and explain in ways that everyone can understand using everyday language. Just as the Great Exhibition used the tools of industrial revolution (such as the Railways and iron buildings), “START” will use the tools of the modern age – the Internet and television – to demonstrate to people how it is possible to adopt more sustainable behaviour and, put simply, to do their “bit.” The hope is that I can tour parts of the U.K. by train – using a diesel locomotive powered by sustainable fuel – in order to celebrate examples of how villages, towns and cities are already “starting” to operate more sustainably.
I am pleased to say that the project already has the support of many good friends from the world of entertainment and sport – too many to name here. With the support of the advertising agency, Fallon, they will help us communicate the message in the most accessible way possible, making it fun as well as informative for everybody. The initiative is also being backed by some of the biggest names on the High Street – many of whom are represented here today – including B&Q, ASDA, M&S, BT, Virgin Money, IBM, Addison Lee and EDF Energy, and to them all I want to express my heartfelt thanks. My hope is that “Project START” will change the tone and the language of sustainability. Instead of “stopping,” we will START!
Ladies and Gentlemen, climate change presents each and every one of us with a huge challenge. But if we can adopt the technologies and ways of life that enable us to leave a softer footprint on our planet, then I believe we can begin to transform our all-important relationship with the Earth and the way it sustains us. That is what our descendants depend on us to do and so that’s why I am asking you to join me in making this a very determined start indeed.