by Alan Burns
The probable outcome of Copenhagen will be half-measures trying to satisfy everyone but falling sharply short of what is needed to avoid a climate catastrophe. Copenhagen may only be a start rather than the solution needed. How we live on a changed planet will be the next challenge.
Over 90 of the world’s leaders will be going to Copenhagen – that indicates how seriously the world now takes global warming. Increasingly in the months leading up to the Copenhagen Conference world leaders have met frequently in hurried attempts to put together an agreement that can respond to demands from many directions as well as pressure from citizens everywhere. Prominent among those are the appeals from third world countries and developing nations that aspire to the better living standards enjoyed by the wealthy nations that are most responsible for the dire climate situation brought about by fossil fuel use over decades. Nations such as Canada, Australia and the USA are the biggest polluters per capita, and are making the least efforts to lower their carbon footprint – it will “affect their standard of living and economy”. Of course it would, but the question then becomes what happens by the end of this century through inaction – will we be worse off?
Pledges of money to defer deforestation for example are headliners, but history sadly shows that such promises aren’t followed up. Similarly, pledges by nations to reduce carbon emissions at dates more than 10 years away are fairly meaningless – requirements of future governments rather than those able to take more immediate action. It is not someone else’s problem in the future, but ours now. Empty rhetoric and promises will not suffice this time: if only gestures emerge from Denmark, then global warming may be too severe a challenge for us to encompass.
Conflicting announcement are made almost daily about what this or that country will do, and that hopes are high for a successful agreement, or alternatively that the world must wait another year for an agreement. Getting everyone in the world to come to an agreement is probably the most difficult of undertakings. Climate activist Dr. James Hansen of NASA, who has for years expounded on the need for governmental action, now calls for Copenhagen to fail. In regard to the advancing warming of the planet and catastrophe that could bring, he is persuasive when comparing to the moral questions of the past; “This is analogous to the issue of slavery faced by Abraham Lincoln or the issue of Nazism faced by Winston Churchill,” he said. “On those kind of issues you cannot compromise. You can’t say let’s reduce slavery, let’s find a compromise and reduce it 50% or reduce it 40%.” While I sympathize with his plea to wait and get it right, I feel it necessary to get much of the way now and build on whatever success we can attain. The U.S. Congress, which ultimately holds the key to reducing greenhouse gasses, is resolutely stubborn and possibly incapable of seeing beyond 2-year election cycles.
The probable outcome of Copenhagen will be half measures trying to satisfy everyone but falling sharply short of what is needed to avoid a climate catastrophe. The science is overwhelming and each time a scientific study emerges it signals that the problems have if anything been underestimated and that global temperatures will far exceed a 2 degree centigrade limit felt necessary to stabilize the planet’s atmosphere suitable for human existence as we now know it. Most recent forecasts are for 6C by 2100. Already temperature rises at the poles are reaching 5C. CO2 levels in the atmosphere have never been higher in thousands of years – burning fossil fuels add to the greenhouse gas level annually. Since world leaders gathered together in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere has risen over 8.5%.
Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress. Under pressure from around the world, the U.S. President is attending the conference on December 18, following his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on December 10. Millions of people around the world are looking to this one man to make a difference, but there is one big handicap, one which the rest of the world leaders recognize and are infuriated by. The U.S Congress allowed the USA to become the only nation in the world not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. President Obama and the world are held hostage by a handful of Senators – mostly from coal producing states – who deny climate change is serious at all, or fear ending the use of fossil fuels would hurt their state’s economy. Others arguing there is no global warming sway public opinion – they are mostly non-scientists and see the debate in PR terms to gain ratings for their media outlets. I consider this highly dangerous. By delaying action they are accepting a huge risk for the next generation, and probably hundreds of millions of people living near coastlines today.
We’re now experiencing unusual climate devastation around the world today – permanent droughts in Australia, rising sea-levels threatening small ocean nations, receding glaciers and melting ice-caps. The future will be different, and this will probably become very apparent as early as 2020 or sooner. But we must mitigate whatever damage is ahead. Copenhagen may only be a start rather than the solution needed. How we live on a changed planet will be the next challenge.
The planet is already committed to a future sea-level rise of a meter or more, but giving up means we could be talking about tens of meters. The hope we have after Copenhagen is that reality sets in and everyday people, especially the young who are to inherit this planet, get involved and push their elected officials to act responsibly and fearlessly without regard to re-election campaigns and corporate lobbying. We know the technology is available, it’s being put in place every day – wind and solar – but at a rate that will not avert a climate disaster. It’s not just about polar bears any more, it’s about us. Over these same recent months that world leaders have been energized, millions of new activists, most noticeably in Europe and Australia, have been drawn into action, and in 2010 that rise in awareness may be the achievement of Copenhagen.