Thanks to almost-president Gore, Katrina, and the UN’s accumulation of warnings from scientists all over the world, climate change can no longer be ignored. The new UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has placed the potential impact of climate change first on his agenda. The UN’s annual major General Assembly in September adopted climate change as its central theme. 150 nations participated in a session to prepare the groundwork for serious negotiations to succeed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The next effort for an international accord to limit the emission of greenhouse gases will take place in December, in Bali, Indonesia.
Unfortunately the US has lagged behind many other countries both by not signing the Kyoto treaty, and by proposing a voluntary approach to a problem that threatens the world as we know it. This response is as absurd as a voluntary speed limit for drivers. Since climate change does not concern itself with national borders, cooperation between nations is obviously necessary. In response to President Bush’s objection that such agreements will inhibit economic growth, Secretary-General Ban observed that the costs of inaction will far outweigh the costs of early action.
The problems are difficult. How comprehensive and far-reaching is the science? What will be the impact of climate change? Above all, what can we do?
The UN has sponsored a major global assessment of global change by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) in reports from three working groups. The first report, the scientific assessment report, was a monumental undertaking of findings from more than 2,500 scientists from all over 130 countries, summing up the last 6 years of research. The report confirms that since the year 1750 the marked increase in atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide is the result of human activity. The second report concerns the effects on ecological systems and especially the effect on human beings. In the short run, there will be winners and losers. In the long run, everyone will lose.
Temperature increase will impact agricultural productivity and the availability of food, as will hurricanes, flooding, losses of coastal wetlands. Water supplies, stored in glaciers and snow cover, are projected to decline, aggravating the already serious competition for water. Approximately 20 to 30 per cent of planet and animal species may become extinct. Areas already affected by drought will increase. WHO, the World Health Organization, warns that health conditions worldwide will worsen. A rise in infectious disease is expected, particularly in tropical regions, as well as asthma, respiratory diseases and more cases of malaria. Since poor people already live in areas more vulnerable to climate extremes, they will be more affected.
The third report offers proposals to mitigate some of these consequences. The first proposal is to move from our fossil-fuel and carbon-based economy to cleaner technology, renewable energy and energy efficiency. A recent report by the UN Environment Program shows that the combination of high oil prices and increasing government support is fueling soaring rates of investment in renewable energy and efficiency. This produces potentially great business opportunities, an investment rising from already $80 billion in 2005 to $100 billion in 2006. New technology can be an enormous boon, but poorer countries will need help to make the necessary transition.
Global action is vital. Local communities can contribute. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, and the Mayor of Delhi, Ari Mehra, reported on their innovative efforts. California, the world’s seventh largest economy, is planning groundbreaking emissions standards and the world’s first-ever low carbon fuel standard. California and 13 other states are proposing new rules to reduce greenhouse gases from cars and light trucks. Delhi has the world’s largest bus fleet running on clean fuel.
The world is moving towards massive changes in the way we live, the way we use energy, and the way we relate to the earth. The transition will be less or more painful. We do have some degree of choice. A commentator at one UN meeting summed up what humanity needs to respond to the challenge—“pessimism of intellect, and optimism of will.” The acknowledgement of the danger is a necessary beginning.
Phyllis Ehrenfeld, AEU’s National Service Conference Representative to the UN,
Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld, IHEU Representative to the UN.