Thursday, 8 October 2009

Climate change: a long time coming?

No one needs to be told that climate change is topical at the moment. It's in the papers and the twitter feeds every day and if it's not an item on Nigeria being urged to declare Yobe State a desert area, then it's the Maldivian Cabinet planning to meet underwater to demonstrate the risk to its country from the expected global warming induced rising water levels The plain truth is that we are writing ecological cheques we just can't cash and if we are prioritising, it's this debt we should worry about, not the financial debt that has caused our ongoing global recession.

“The financial crisis is a result of our living beyond our financial means. The climate crisis is a result of our living beyond our planet’s means.” Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Climate Convention.

We have to stop living beyond our planet's means if we want to go on living at all. It's our long-term survival that climate change is impacting. And this is not news. In fact if you look at the climate change timeline in WWF's pocket guide to 'The New Climate Deal', the first time there was awareness that a crisis might be looming was 1896! What have we been doing with our heads buried in the sand for over a century? Below, with thanks to WWF, is the timeline:

  • 1865: John Tyndall postulated that gases such as water vapour and CO2 in the “atmospheric envelope” retain the heat.
  • 1896: Svante Arrhenius predicted that increases of atmospheric CO2 from burning fossil fuels would lead to global warming; a doubling of atmospheric CO2 could cause global average temperature to rise by 5ÂșC. The predictions of this Nobel Prize laureate (1903) went unnoticed for more than half a century.
  • 1958: First continuous monitoring reveals rapidly rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere.
  • 1970s: Beginning of period of atmospheric warming known as “global warming”.
  • 1988: UN establishes the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to assess the science of climate change.
  • 1990: IPCC’s First Assessment is published. The year is subsequently established as the baseline year for future emissions targets.
  • 1992: Earth Summit meets in Rio de Janeiro. Governments agree on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which commits them to preventing “dangerous climate change”.
  • 1995: After a fierce debate, in particular with OPEC nations, the IPCC Second Assessment establishes the strong link between human-induced greenhouse gases and climate change, saying that “the balance of evidence suggests….” that global warming is caused by mankind.
  • 1997: Kyoto Protocol is agreed under UNFCCC. It includes the first emissions reduction targets for industrialized countries, covering 2008-2012; all major nations sign up.
  • 1998: Warmest year in warmest decade in warmest century for at least a thousand years.
  • 2001: Nations agree on methodological and other details of the Kyoto Protocol in Marrakech. The USA and Australia refuse to ratify the protocol.
  • 2003: European heat wave, which kills more than 30,000 people. Scientists later conclude it is the first extreme weather event definitely attributable to human-induced climate change. Scientists report a third of the world afflicted by droughts, double the figure for the 1970s.
  • 2005: Drought temporarily turns Amazon rainforest from a carbon sink to a carbon source.
  • 2007: Massive summer ice loss in the Arctic brings fears of an ice-free north; IPCC Fourth Assessment warns of faster and irreversible climate change; Bali Climate Conference lays out timetable for agreeing successor to Kyoto Protocol.
  • 2008: Poznan Climate Conference in Poland; slow progress on negotiations as many wait for the new Obama administration in the USA to declare its hand.
  • 2009: Make or break year for the climate, with negotiations continuing for a Copenhagen Protocol set to conclude in December.

What's also interesting is that while countries and governments acknowledge that we have to get started, they are reluctant to be held to account. Right here in South Africa, our government recently released a statement stating, "While South Africa acknowledges that it is a contributor to the overall global green house gases largely due to its reliance on coal powered electricity, we are committed to taking responsible action to reduce our emissions but we are not ready to agree to any targets that would undermine our growth trajectory. Like other developing nations-, we still face the major challenge of growing our economy to enable us to meet the Millennium Development Goals."

Reading between the lines: yes we are part of the problem and we promise to get around to fixing it, just not right now and we won't say when either. And while there may be mitigating circumstances, if one of the most sophisticated players on the African continent won't commit how can others be held to account? And all the while time keeps marching irrefutably on.....

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