Talking Points

Turning up the Heat

By AF Keck

“Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to
forestall. He will end by destroying the Earth.”

Albert Schweitzer – German philosopher

“The first law of ecology is that everything is
related to everything else.”

Barry Commoner – American biologist

The Play

Global warming is the observed increase in the average temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans in recent decades. The Earth’s average near-surface atmospheric temperature rose 0.6 ± 0.2 Celsius (1.1 ± 0.4 Fahrenheit) in the 20th century. The prevailing scientific opinion on climate change is that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities, mainly due to the increased levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases such as methane. These gasses are released by the burning of fossil fuels, land clearing and agriculture, and lead to an increase in the greenhouse effect, which traps more of the sun’s energy in the Earth’s atmosphere. The first speculation that a greenhouse effect might occur due to industrialisation was by the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius in 1897, although it did not become a topic of popular debate until today.

The Players

The United States emits more of these pollutants per individual than any other country in the world by far. When the Kyoto treaty was formed, the US originally signed and committed to reducing its emissions by 6%. However, since then it has pulled out of the agreement and its carbon dioxide emissions have increased to more than 15% above what it produced in 1990. For the agreement to become a legally binding treaty, it had to be ratified by countries that together were responsible for at least 55% of 1990’s total emissions reported by the industrialised countries and emerging economies that made commitments to reduce their emissions under the protocol. As the US accounted for 36.1% of those emissions, this 55% target was much harder to achieve without its participation.

All 15 European Union states ratified the Kyoto deal in May 2002. The protocol’s most enthusiastic supporter, the EU has pressured countries such as Russia, Japan and Canada to endorse Kyoto so that it could come into force without the commitment of the US. The EU has continually argued for a rigorous application of Kyoto, wanting to limit the use of so-called ‘flexibility mechanisms’ which allow countries to partially meet their emissions reduction targets by paying for improvements in other countries. The EU has also opposed widespread use of forests and other carbon ‘sinks’ to absorb pollution, but gave substantial ground on the issue at talks in Bonn in 2001. However, despite its tough stance on Kyoto, the EU is some way off its own target. It pledged to bring total greenhouse gas emissions to 8% below 1990’s

levels by 2008-2012, but by 2002 they had dropped only 2.9% – and CO2 emissions had risen slightly. Only four EU countries are on track to achieve their own targets.

China is the world’s second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, but as it is considered a developing country it is not yet required to reduce its emissions. With China accounting for a fifth of the world’s population, increases in its emissions could dwarf any cuts made by the industrialised countries. China’s leaders apparently recognise that climate change could devastate their society and ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2002. In 2004 Beijing announced plans to generate 10% of its power from renewable sources by 2010. Yet despite all the political rhetoric and pledges, greenhouse gas emissions have shown no sign of abating, and as a consequence the temperatures continue to rise.

The Victims

Although industrialised countries produce the most greenhouse gases blamed for global warming, developing countries suffer the worst consequences. Poor countries and their people are most vulnerable to the increased risks from rising water levels, more frequent and intense weather events, desertification, water scarcity, failing agricultural crops, species extinction as well as the spread of infectious disease. For instance, malaria is spreading increasingly in highland areas in Africa. Before the 1970s, cold temperatures became freezing at high altitudes and thus limited mosquito populations to lower areas. Today, increased warmth has caused mountain glaciers to shrink in the tropics, permitting some mosquitoes to migrate higher in the mountains. For 1999, the report estimates that in sub-Saharan Africa, the total cost of malaria can be valued at between 5.8-17.4 percent of Gross National Product. Malaria has also been shown to decrease economic growth in some countries by 1.3 percent per year.

The decline of the world’s coral reefs are yet another example of the impact of climate change on poor
people. Coral reef decline began in 1980 and some 27 percent of reefs worldwide have been degraded by bleaching, while another 60 percent are deemed highly vulnerable to bleaching, disease and subsequent overgrowth by micro-algae. If unchecked, climate change could lead to the collapse of reefs and their supported fisheries entirely within several decades.

This would obviously disrupt the livelihoods of fishermen and coastal communities relying on the reefs for their income and main source of protein, undermine the tourism industry, and remove the storm protection provided by the reefs.

And the Catastrophe

As all things are related, we in the developed world are of course not immune to effects of these meteorological changes. As resources become scarce in the developing world, and millions upon millions of people continue to go without and starve, we will see an increase of repressive regimes, war, insurgency and terrorism. This will in turn increase levels of refugees seeking asylum and succour throughout western Europe and North America, severely taxing our own diminishing resources while overburdening our already strained socio-political systems.

The costs of climate change fall disproportionately on developing countries, but money to cope with these challenges is scarce. The developing world depends heavily on their ecosystems. If there is a drought, the developed nations can buy food from elsewhere, whereas in the developing world, if there is no food or water, people die en masse. These people have the least resources to adapt to the climatic changes that we are causing. We can build storm barriers and strong shelters, we can implement emergency support and warning systems, they cannot. We in the west know what is going on, and we also know how to put things right, but we do not. Political rhetoric, dismissive ignorance, empty promises, exploitation, aggression and lies are all we have to offer our dying world and our impoverished brethren.

But in the end we all lose, for extinction is the ultimate equaliser.


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