Time to worry about our planet
Indications are that the Copenhagen Summit will end not with a bang but a whimper, the reality of climate change for millions buried in glib handshakes and smiles, writes Curtis Doebbler*
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From top: a pipe can be seen in front of a coal power station of energy group Evonik near the western German city of Herne; environmental activists hold a demonstration in front of the US embassy in Jakarta protesting against emissions reduction targets set by the US; two children stand in front of a giant poster with "Hopenhagen" written on it in the Danish capital Copenhagen
No single meeting in the last half-century is likely to be as important for the world as the Summit on Climate Change that is taking place in Copenhagen, Denmark from 7-18 December. At this summit more than 3,000 diplomats and civil society representatives will try to agree on what action the more than 110 expected heads of state can commit to when they arrive for the final three days of the meeting.
The summit opened with cordial formalities calling for action and consensus. The host, Denmark's prime minister, called vaguely for joint action. The head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlighted the clear scientific evidence that action is needed and underlined that worst-case scenarios can be avoided at reasonable cost. The head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) reiterated the need to cooperate to protect the most vulnerable people. And the newly elected conference president, also the Danish and EU climate czar, Ms Connie Hedegaard, implored states to make this summit a success. Everyone seemed to agree that urgent action was necessary to prevent the worse effects of climate change, many of which will be felt the most in the Middle East and North Africa.
The summit brings together representatives of the 196 state parties to the UNFCCC, including heads of state. The central issue is how to at least mitigate or adapt to global warming if we cannot stop it. The consequences of inaction -- or unsuccessful action -- are extraordinary. Some will lose their land; others will lose their ability to produce food, others their water, and even more will be plummeted even further into desperate lives of poverty and disease. The Maldives Islands will disappear altogether. Its third of a million inhabitants will become climate refugees. Its $2 billion GDP will be absorbed or devoured by other economies. All of this will happen without the consent of the people of the Maldives and due mainly to the actions of people in other countries.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in its 2007-2008 World Development Report devoted to climate change concludes that, "climate change will increase the risks to and reduce the productivity of developing country agriculture." This will lead to even greater food insecurity in regions of the world where access to food is already precarious for large numbers of people. According to the Nobel Prize-winning IPCC, water will also become scarcer for many people already suffering from shortages, because climate change is making dry parts of the world even more arid. Its 2007 report predicts that this will result in a greater number of droughts, more evaporation of water from the surface of the earth, and significant changes in the global pattern of rainfall and rain runoff, with devastating floods looming in proportion to deadly droughts.
The UNDP report also harrowingly concludes that "in the long run climate change is a massive threat to human development and in some places it is already undermining the international community's efforts to reduce extreme poverty."
Even in the Europe, which might eventually benefit from increased food production by warmer weather, the human cost of climate change has already been felt by increased disasters such as flooding, avalanches, and fires due to changing climate. In short, climate change poses a significant threat to the most fundamental human rights of a significant number of human beings who already live under difficult circumstances. One would think that in facing such a threat humankind would come together to take action, which if taken today will be much less expensive -- and more possible -- than if we wait.
Once again, however, the nations of the world, led by our richest and most privileged, have shown amazing resilience for maintaining selfish national interests to the peril of our whole planet. Instead of agreeing on the facts that have been established by the IPCC, leaders who are unwilling to share the fruits of centuries of unbalanced exploitation of the world's natural resources are refusing to admit responsibility for climate change's adverse effects. The IPCC's evidence that climate change is in large part man made and that has adverse effects for the world's most vulnerable people is strong, almost unavoidably obvious.
In 2007, the IPCC won the Nobel Prize for the work it had done, and not merely for what might do the future. This work includes striking conclusions about the fate of the world and the human race unless we act to mitigate the adverse impacts of climate change. The IPCC's scientific conclusions were -- and are -- based on the work of more than 400 experts from more than 120 countries whose work is in turn reviewed by more than 2500 experts. Even such intricate scientific research could get it wrong, but it is much more likely that their critics are wrong. In any case, would a wise person gamble the earth's survival against such overwhelming odds? Most probably not, but apparently some climate sceptics are willing to do so.
In the past few weeks a number of climate change sceptics have questioned the reliability of the IPCC's conclusions and predictions. They have done so on the basis of flimsy evidence suggesting that a very few of the thousands of scientists involved the body's conclusions had some misgivings about them. Despite the fact that many of the sceptics' concerns were based on misinterpretations of facts, the IPCC responded strongly with an unequivocal statement standing by their conclusions. The sceptics were broadly condemned not only by climate change advocates but even British Prime Minister Gordon Brown who compared them to people who still believe the earth is flat.
Nevertheless, once again the scepticism reared its head as Saudi Arabia voiced its concerns in its opening statement in Copenhagen, calling for an investigation of the IPCC's data, citing the discredited allegations of sceptics stemming from e-mails stolen and quoted out of context. But while the issue of whether or not climate change is happening appears to be resolved, there is much less agreement on what to do about it. The countries that have benefited from an unrestrained -- or barely restrained -- ability to exploit and pollute the earth's atmosphere, water and soil have refused to concede the advantages they have accrued over hundreds of years. Even worse, many of these rich governments seek to deny this same right of development to other countries.
The United States and Western Europe lead this group in denying the adequate transfer of green technology at concessionary prices. According to the majority of the countries in this group, technology transfer should take place at "market prices". The result is that technology imbalances contribute to maintaining inequalities of wealth between intellectual property owning countries and the majority of the world. In opposition, the countries that make up the majority of the international community are demanding that green technology be affordable and accessible.
Money is another problem. The majority of countries in the world, led by the G-77, are calling for the creation of adequate financing mechanisms. They argue that the existing mechanisms based on voluntary contributions are either underfunded or merely inadequate; especially those based on carbon trading. Even states that are able and willing to negotiate the confusing labyrinth of rules concerning disbursement of these funds have difficulties actually receiving the funds. The majority of states seek a sustainable and consistent funding mechanism that is accessible in a timely manner to developing countries that need support in coping with climate change. The governments with money, however, don't want to invest enough to satisfy that need, and urge that a significant part of the investment come from the private sector.
Despite the relevance of all these concerns, the loudest hollers -- from demonstrators in streets around the world as well as from many representatives of civil society who will be in Copenhagen -- will be about emissions. Although there are some slight variations, most of these voices will be calling for cuts in emissions that will keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the level at which there is a good "chance" that the most devastating effects of climate change will begin to be felt. This requires lowing carbon dioxide (Co2) emissions all over the world.
While there is agreement that this is necessary, there is also significant disagreement about how responsibility should be apportioned among states. Mainly "developing countries" that have not benefited from excessive Co2 emissions for the past couple of hundred years believe that those countries that have should bear a greater responsibility for making more significant cutbacks now and in the near future. The "developed countries" don't disagree in principle, but they do in fact. They worry that if they shoulder too great a proportion of the cuts their economic development will suffer.
Australia, speaking on behalf of the "Umbrella Group", which includes Canada, Iceland, the US, Australia, and Russia, among others, called for reductions of greenhouse gases. Australia stressed that all countries should act according to their own abilities, using words like "substantial" and "real" to describe the reductions they would make and the financing that they would provide to developing countries. The mixed "Environmental Integrity Group", represented by Mexico, and the European Union, represented by Sweden, also suggested that action be taken to cut emissions, but both groups targets fell short of what is widely acknowledged to be necessary to avoid the most adverse impacts of climate change.
Developing countries stressed the historical and collective nature of the responsibility of states. For example, Lesotho, speaking on behalf of the least developed countries (LDCs), stressed that progress must be based on the Bali Principles on adaption and called for developed states to provide 1.5 per cent additional in overseas development assistance to LDCs. Grenada, speaking for small island states, supported this call.
Perhaps the intervention that best reflects the real problem between governments was made by Papua New Guinea. This small African state intervened at the opening session to request that decisions be made by a majority of three-fourths of attending governments. At the moment there is a commitment to making decisions by consensus, which means that few decisions have been made to take even minimally adequate action, and even fewer decisions have been made to ensure adequate implementation. Indeed, Professor Jacqueline McGlade, head of the European Environment Agency, recently noted that, "the key to protecting and enhancing our environment is in the hands of the many, not the few." Yet the governments negotiating in Copenhagen these two weeks remain tied to the will of the few that obstruct the consensus shared by the many.
Nevertheless, sticking to tradition, the Danish president of the conference deferred consideration of Papua New Guinea's suggestion and Brazil, Saudi Arabia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo all rejected it. No one suggested alternatives for breaking current political deadlocks, some of which have existed for 18 years. While almost 200 governments and thousands of NGOs clamoured for influence at the Bella Centre, an alternative peoples' Klimaforum09 was held next to the Central Train Station in downtown Copenhagen. At this forum individuals, groups and just about anyone who wants to attend can voice their opinions on climate change and hear the voices of experts, including many involved in the negotiations at the Bella Centre outside of town.
Klimaforum09 was underwritten by the Danish government, which also ensured that it was at a site far away from the main governmental summit it was hosting. And as if to illustrate the contrasts that have plagued government action on climate change for decades, the hosts mixed an admirable effort to make the summit one of the most ecological friendly -- providing for the free hosting of visitors, free transport, free water, and a host of events -- with the introduction of medieval police powers.
This week and next many people will be asking why we do no act. As Swedish writer Sven Lindqvist has lamented, "You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions."
* The writer is an international human rights lawyer and professor of law at An-Najah National University, Nablus, Palestine.