Climate Change Editorial

Our Planet - Ozone



United Nations Under-Secretary General
and Executive Director, UNEP


The last ice age was brought to an end by a warming of the global climate of just a few degrees over the course of thousands of years. Now the global climate is projected to warm up a few degrees more, but this time within the space of just a few decades, promising equally profound consequences for life on Earth.

This should be rather important to us. Some might call it a global catastrophe in the making; a potential crisis requiring precautionary measures. But what is puzzling, not to mention astonishing and frightening, is why it appears that not everyone is taking it very seriously.

If but a handful of scientists warned us that a large meteorite hurtling towards Earth threatened to kill millions of people upon impact and create a dust cloud certain to bring on another ice age within a few years, the matter would command the attention of the world's leaders and receive an urgent and concerted response.

But when the world is informed that unless greenhouse-gas emissions are significantly reduced, the Earth could, during the next century, warm almost as much as it has over the past 10,000 years, with potentially devastating consequences for people and the environment, it is business as usual. Bold action is strenuously resisted if there are significant costs or inconveniences attached to it. The science is attacked by fossil fuel-related industries. And the diplomats are dispatched with a brief to agree on language that protects what is perceived as the national interest.

Now, just days away from the Kyoto climate discussions, it is clear that there is little convergence towards an adequate response by the governments of the world.

Negotiators may well find language that they can all agree on. For many, that will constitute success. But for anyone who was listening, the world's leading climate scientists announced their consensus opinion that a 60 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions would be the minimum required to avert a global disaster, and everything under consideration for the Kyoto Protocol is woefully inadequate.

The signal of climate change is still barely detectable and it is time for us to agree on precautionary measures sufficiently robust to ensure the worst fears are never realized. It is perhaps unfortunate that several states, including those having the historical responsibility for changing the mix of atmospheric gases indicated in global warming, are not proposing control measures that match the risks we face. The reasons are many, principally economic and political. They are not scientific. Only very few deny the link between greenhouse-gas emissions and climate change and the majority of those have clear economic links with the fossil fuel industry.

Kyoto was looked to as an opportunity to make amends for the inaction in the post-Rio period. At best we will have a compromise agreement without the bold targets and tight timetables necessary to limit climate change and slow its onset. So, very regrettably, we must now look beyond Kyoto to a process in which we approach this issue in some new ways.

Clearly, the world is not getting what it needs or expects from the multilateral process. Amid the din of vigorous defences of national interests, very few voices offering self-sacrifice in the name of collective well-being can be heard. There is a vision deficit; a leadership gap; and nothing approaching a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

In my view, there is an urgent need for the world's statesmen and stateswomen to take up this issue personally and see it through. We must break through the barrier that prevents us from contemplating responses to the threat of global warming because of economic implications of inconvenience. The assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change must be accepted as the scientific foundation of the debate and not the subject of the debate. No agreement should be contemplated that is not legally enforceable and carrying penalties sufficient to prevent any Party from gaining competitive advantage through non-compliance. And much greater public awareness and understanding of the issues will be fundamental both to meaningful debate at the national level and to any possibility for consensus.

Reductions are achievable and can be undertaken without great costs or damage to economies. Use of the market forces involving the awarding and trading of carbon credits, sharing of greening technology, developing and applying new and renewable sources of energy, initiating domestic energy saving programmes at the municipal and grassroots levels, particularly in the transport sector and in commercial energy use, and pollution control will quickly bring about the needed savings.

Billions of dollars will be spent when there are dykes to build to hold back the seas and refugees to save and relocate. The less we do now, the faster and greater the change and the greater the expense.

When there is a crisis attributable to climate change there will be a response. There will be no disputing the scientific evidence then. And it will not take as much in the form of statesmanship as it will logistics to respond.

But will it also be too late?

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