Nature's warning

Jan Pronk says we cannot continue to ignore the warnings of climate change

Nature’s warningsThe climate is changing. It has been changing ever since the Earth was formed, fluctuating between ice ages and worldwide heat waves. But in all of human history, the climate has never changed as fast as it is changing today. The evidence is mounting. Scientists tell us that what was merely a suspicion a decade ago is now a practical certainty. The greenhouse gases we produce are having a visible impact on the environment.

There is nothing unclear about their forecasts or about the consequences they predict. Islands and coastlines disappearing underwater, more extreme weather patterns, heat waves, rivers bursting their banks, drought, water shortages, failed harvests, ecosystems damaged beyond repair and diseases spreading. Needless to say, there are still doubts and uncertainties. After all, no one can look into the future. But the scientific community agrees that the risks are present and that they threaten the entire world.

Nature seems to have given us all the warnings we need. Floods, mudslides and windstorms are all getting more frequent. Science cannot say to what extent we humans are responsible for this. But it does not have to. Indeed it would be irresponsible to wait for absolute scientific proof.

The effects of climate change are irreversible – for ecosystems, agriculture, water supply and health. The less we do and the longer we wait to tackle the roots of this problem, the more serious the effects and the greater the strain on the resilience of people, plants and animals. It is ironic that developing countries, which are least of all to blame for this predicament, will suffer the most devastating consequences. And it is they whose economic resilience is lowest. The damage caused by climate change aggravates the socio-economic inequalities that already exist. The poorest people often live in the toughest locations in the world, the driest, the least productive, the most vulnerable. They are the first hit and the least able to defend themselves.

In the early 1980s, driven by purely theoretical considerations, negotiators concluded a binding treaty to phase out substances that harm the ozone layer. Only in the late 1990s did the decisive evidence come in, from sources like satellite and ground measurements, that the ozone layer had been damaged. It is a good thing we did not wait. And we cannot wait on climate change either – or we will certainly live to regret it

Jan Pronk is Minister of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment, The Netherlands

PHOTOGRAPH: Gabriela Zamorano Villareal/UNEP/Still Pictures

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Learning from disaster | Being prepared | The way forward | Breaking the cycle | Flip-flop to catastrophe | Nature's warnings | At a glance | Competition | Insuring against catastrophe | Recreating sustainability | The legacy of conflict | Ask us, involve us | The poor suffer most | Through a slanted lens

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Claude Martin: Focus: Millennial warning (Looking Forward) 1999
Ritt Bjerregaard: Call for more action (Climate and Action) 1998
Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker and Hermann E. Ott: Tax bads, not goods (Climate and Action) 1998
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