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Climate change window closing

World leaders are preparing to abandon whole areas of the planet to climate change. That’s the implication from speeches at the one-day (!) gathering at the United Nations to discuss the impact of global warming and the prospects for a post-Kyoto treaty. On the one side there was UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon who told government leaders and corporate chiefs that “the time for doubt has passed" and that "national action” with “industrialised countries taking the lead” was the way forward. What is actually going to happen was spelled out by Canada’s prime minister Stephen Harper, who said his country’s approach to climate change was “balance” in order to protect – yes, you guessed right - the economy. “We are balancing environmental protections with economic growth," he said.

Harper is set to join President Bush at a US-led meeting of the 16 largest emitters of greenhouse gases scheduled to be held later this week in Washington. Cue Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She told the UN conference that the White House was fully committed to “climate adaptation". Put “balance” and “adaptation” together and you get business as usual for the major capitalist economies while poorer, low-lying coastal areas of Asia, for example, are written off as sea levels rise.

The stark truth is that drastic action would have to start immediately to make any significant impact on climate change. Halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, for example, could only happen if levels were stabilised at roughly 450 parts per million (ppm), according to Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Already, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas, are approaching 400 ppm. Emissions would need to peak by 2015 and then decline rapidly to reach the 2050 goal. There is no chance of this taking place under present political and economic conditions.

Warning signs are mounting. Paraguay, for example, is experiencing a crippling drought that has led to the worst forest fires in its recorded history, while floods in East Africa are devastating food supplies. Diseases like chikungunya fever, which cripple patients with joint pain, have begun to appear in new areas, such as Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. And with Arctic ice cover shrinking more than ever this past summer, the Inuit say their way of life is disappearing.

A new report by the Worldwatch Institute says the oceans have absorbed about half of the carbon dioxide emitted by humans in the last 200 years. Climate change is altering fish migration routes, pushing up sea levels, intensifying coastal erosion, raising ocean acidity, and interfering with currents that move vital nutrients upward from the deep sea. Vital Signs project director Erik Assadourian admits that the window to prevent catastrophic climate change appears to be closing. Governments are starting to direct their attention to staking their claims in a warming world. “Canada is spending $3 billion to build eight new patrol boats to reinforce its claim over the Arctic waterways. Denmark and Russia are starting to vie for control over the Lomonosov Ridge, where new sources of oil and natural gas could be accessed if the Arctic Circle becomes ice free—fossil fuels that will further exacerbate climate change. These actions assume that a warming world is here,” says Assadourian.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor
26 September 2007

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