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Weather warning

Today everyone is focused on the devastation caused by the Samoan tsunami and the Sumatran earthquake. There is no suggestion that these events are connected to climate change, but as governments in the area struggle to deal with the aftermath, we can see a hint of the future unless urgent action is taken to halt global warming.

The reality is that the the frequency and intensity of extreme weather is already beyond the ability of governments to protect populations.

Over the last ten days there have been massive dust storms clouding Sidney and Brisbane, driven by 100km an hour winds, while grass fires rage out of control in Queensland. In the Phillippines, hundreds are dead and thousands homeless in flooding caused by a severe storm.

Oxfam warned this week that 23 million people are facing severe hunger due to climate change-exacerbated drought in East Africa.

There is drought across the globe. In north east China the crucial corn crop will be down one eighth this year. The Paraguay economy has contracted by 8% because of drought. In the US states of Texas, California and Florida, job losses and bankruptcies are mounting in the farming industry.

At a climate conference in Oxford entitled “Four degrees and beyond....”, scientists warned that without a dramatic decrease in emissions things will get worse far more quickly than expected and global warming will exceed four degrees by the end of this century.

In a 4 degrees warmer world, drought migrations on a massive scale would be inevitable, along with species and plant extinctions. About 40 million people worldwide live in flood plains, the conference heard, equivalent to 0.6 percent of the global population and most of them would be on the move.

The answer to all of this is in our hands. A 70% reduction in emissions between now and the end of the century will prevent the worst impacts, and we could set about mitigating the rest.

But as conference convenor Dr Mark New, from the Tyndall Centre, said: "Since the late 1990s, greenhouse gas emissions have increased at close to the most extreme IPCC scenarios, meaning that rates of warming will be faster than most people expect".

That means that since the original Earth Summit in 1992, when most governments were clear that there was a growing crisis, the rate of emissions has actually speeded up.

Climate campaigners are giving a desperate focus to the Copenhagen summit in December, but it will be no different from all the rest. All the fine words from Chinese President Wen Jiabao and US President Barack Obama are not being translated into action. In the midst of a global drive to rescue the capitalist economy, climate change is slipping down the agenda in reality, if not in words.

However the fact that our governments are committed to the continuation of the current economic system by any means necessary should not prevent us from seeking solutions to this global crisis. But that means taking power into our own hands, and ensuring that the future is not sacrificed to short-term profit.

Finally, we should note that whilst these current terrible earthquakes are in an active seismic zone, earthquakes too could become more frequent as climate change intensifies. Research suggests that the melting of glaciers relieves pressure on the tectonic plates and so they settle into new configurations, causing seismic reactions.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
2 October 2009

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