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Adapt to climate change - on our terms

Climate scientists have called an emergency meeting in Copenhagen next week to demand that world leaders take immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to start preparing society for the impact of climate change. As Australia counts the terrible cost of bush fires, and wheat prices soar in China due to prolonged drought in grain growing regions, the results of climate change are already apparent.

Scientists will update the 2007 International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report to reflect the speed-up in the melting of ice caps, and the inability of oceans to absorb any more CO2. They will say that a 2°C increase in global temperature is probably no longer avoidable, and former head of the IPCC Bob Watson argues they should prepare for an average rise of 4°C.

Some might be taking comfort that the slump in production arising from the global economic crisis will solve the problem. Japan says it will produce 50 million tonnes less CO2 this year as output collapses, for example. But as emissions from industry reduce, other sources are increasing. More widespread forest fires, a switch to cheaper, dirtier forms of energy and an end to investment in alternative energy projects – all of these will keep emissions high. The greenhouse effect itself, fuelled by the carbon already in the atmosphere, will not go away – winter ice will go on receding and tundra’s will go on melting, releasing formerly trapped CO2.

Market-driven measures, which are the only international political response so far, have also fallen apart. Carbon credits, for example, have lost two-thirds of their value in the last six months and the slide continues. The fall in the value of credits means there is even less incentive for companies to reduce emissions. Now that the market has failed, the next big thing is techno-fixes. The Obama presidency is investing in hydrogen-fuelled cars and bio-mass fuel from cellulose – processes that use more fuel than they create.

More bizarre ideas are out there. Two newly-formed corporations plan experimental dumping of iron filings or urea into the oceans. They want to grow a carpet of plankton that will hold carbon deep in the oceans for ever. The fact that governments have not banned these reckless experiments with the ocean eco-system is proof of how supine they are.

A new report from Corporate Watch looks in details at all the techno-fixes being considered and concludes that the only technologies likely to be delivered by the system are technologies that support the system.

Adaptation to climate change must not be a taboo subject. We need serious measures such as drought-resistant varieties of grains; plans to reduce the salination of fresh water at the mouths of deltas, strategies for big movements of populations and so on. But if we leave this adaptation in the hands of the existing power structures, all we will get is further profit-driven experimentation with the planet’s eco-systems.

In terms of climate change, as with the banking system, the politicians will go on trying to sustain the unsustainable! We must remove their decision-making power to unite scientists with society in a democratic partnership. In this way we can first cut emissions by changing the way goods and energy are produced. And then, since we will have to live with the effects of the reckless capitalist experiment for many hundreds of years, we can plan to adapt in ways that reflect the needs of people, not profit.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
12 February 2009

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