Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 July 2011
Issue No. 1055
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Two threats to our existence

If the first threat to human existence is climate change, the refusal of developed states to take responsibility for it and address it comes a close second, writes Curtis Doebbler*

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Climate change is widely acknowledged to be the greatest threat facing humanity. It will lead to small island states disappearing from the face of the earth, serious global threats to our food and water supplies, and ultimately the death of hundreds of millions of the poorest people in the world over the course of this century.

No other threat -- including war, nuclear disasters, rogue regimes, terrorism, or the fiscal irresponsibility of governments -- is reliably predicted to cause so much harm to so many people on earth, and indeed to the earth itself. The International Panel on Climate Change, which won the Nobel Prize for its evaluation of thousands of research studies to provide us accurate information on climate change, has predicted that under the current scenario of "business-as-usual", temperatures could rise by as much as 10 degrees Celsius in some parts of the world. This would have horrendous consequences for the most vulnerable people in the world. Consequences that the past spokesman of 136 developing countries, Lumumba Diaping, described as the equivalent of sending hundreds of millions of Africans to the furnace.

Yet for more than two decades, states have failed to take adequate action to either prevent climate change or to deal with its consequences. A major reason for this is that many wealthy industrialised countries view climate change as at worst an inconvenience, or at best even a potential market condition from which they can profit at the expense of developing countries. Indeed, history has shown them that because of their significantly higher levels of population they have grown rich and been able to enslave, exploit and marginalise their neighbours in developing countries. They continue in this vein.

Still, government representatives, led by the United States and other developed countries, continue to stand in the way of even the most basic action. They are blocking legally-binding minimally adequate emissions limits with the result that temperature rises are inevitable and will cause deadly harm to people in many developing countries, and will eventually destroy the planet. Ironically, these same rich countries are calling for developing countries to carry the greatest burden of cutting emissions. If developing countries were to shoulder this burden this would lead to an even greater difference in living standards between the world's richest and the poorest. But it is unlikely they could even do so if they wanted to carry such a disproportional burden. The reason is that they have neither the technology that is needed to cut emissions without literally killing their people and the richest countries and private entities therein that have the technology are not willing to share it.

As if to rub salt into the wounds of the developing countries facing the inevitability of climate destruction, the developed countries are also refusing to provide even a fraction of the estimated resources needed to carry this burden and at the same time protect their people. It is true that the resources needed to stop the planet from overheating and to protect people from the climate change that we can already not prevent is not a small sum of money. According to the World Bank, it is as much as $750 billion a year at 2009 rates -- today over $1 trillion in light of the collapsing US dollar. To date, developed countries have made a top offer of $30 billion now and 100 billion by 2020. In fact, they have put more effort into mysteriously revising the World Bank figure downwards while the costs of the actions needed have risen and the damage already done has increased. Still, despite offering too little and fiddling the books to decrease the amount that they need to offer, developing countries have disbursed less than one per cent of even their inadequate pledges.

It would seem to be a classic case of the rich just not caring about the poor. Indeed, they don't seem to need to care. Developed countries seem to have such disproportionate financial resources advantages that they can even purchase the support of developing countries. The tiny island archipelago of Maldives, which will already most certainly disappear because of the rising sea levels caused by climate change, has, for example, given up on trying to take adequate action on climate change. Instead, it frequently supports the proposals of developed countries to take inadequate action. In 2009, its president publicly declared at the annual climate talks that he could agree to nothing better than a deal that would lead to his country disappearing under the sea. Whether the words were his or actually those of developed countries is unclear, as his speaking points are sometimes written by advisors who are paid and made available to the Maldives by rich developed countries.

Regardless, it is getting harder for developed countries to ignore the "ticking clock" of climate change that has already condemned many people in the Global South to lives of misery. The year 2010 was a stark reminder when average global temperatures reached their highest level ever and natural disasters became regular occurrences.

NOTHER YEAR OF FRUITLESS TALK: Nevertheless, while our atmosphere is literally burning up around us, our representatives talk, but take no effective action. The recent climate talks in Bonn, Germany that ended two weeks past Friday were supposed to lay the groundwork for an agreement on adequate international action at the next major round of global talks in Durban, South Africa from 28 November to 9 December 2011. In Durban, ministers and heads of states and governments will come together to decide whether action can be taken to ensure we cut our global emissions of greenhouse gases. If they don't agree to extend and increase their obligations to cut emissions under the Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the obligations for states to take the action that is needed most urgently to combat climate change will end in 2012.

In Bonn, developed countries stood obstinately against extending these emission limits. The United States, which is the only major emitting country that never joined the Kyoto Protocol, as well as Canada and Japan, stated publicly that they would not agree to extend the Kyoto Protocol even before the latest round of meetings began. These developed states took this stance despite that fact that almost all other states want to extend and strengthen the emission limits in the Kyoto Protocol. They just do not seem to care.

At a briefing for US NGOs, the US chief negotiator in Bonn, Jonathan Perishing, offered incredible excuses for his country's intransigence. They ranged from domestic law to excuses cowered in the language of long discredited climate sceptics. The biggest problem, however, was perhaps that neither he nor his significant number of colleagues seemed to care. In typical American fashion, he concluded that it was about image and how the US gets its message across, rather than the fact that the consequences of its message are likely to be deadly for hundreds of millions of the most vulnerable people in the world. For the Americans and some of their allies, the lack of progress was to be viewed with satisfaction.

Some incremental progress was made; a few brackets were removed, a few words were agreed upon, but in the end just as much was left to disagreement as existed before the meetings. Moreover, on the most important issues states seemed even farther apart than when they started the negotiations. They were so far apart, that just like in meetings that took place in Bangkok last year, they spent almost half their time discussing the agenda.

It was left to the permanent secretary of the small Solomon Islands' Ministry of Environment to remind delegates in the final meeting that they needed to act quickly because climate change is likely the greatest threat to the planet and human survival. But after a short ovation, as if to recognise the intrinsic wisdom of these words, delegates returned to the squabbling over details that has lasted almost two decades.

As delegates filtered out of the room, and even the executive secretary of the UNFCCC, Costa Rican Christina Figueres, could be seen walking hastily from the hall, a few of the almost silenced voices of civil society were given the opportunity to echo the call for urgent action. These NGOs pleaded for action and assessed the proceedings as providing much too little, much too late. These voices often emphasised the enhanced obligations of developed states under the international law. These obligations, as stated in the UNFCCC that has been ratified by 194 states, include the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" whereby an enhanced burden is placed on developed countries to do more to protect the climate. In Bonn, this principle seemed forgotten.

AILURE TO ACT: To date, states have failed to take adequate action to prevent even the worst adverse effects of climate change. This failure is most pointedly evident in the failure of states to renew and enhance their legal and binding obligations to cut emissions of pollutants that cause climate change. Even states such as Canada and Japan who are party to the Kyoto Protocol have stated their clear intention to violate that treaty. They have done so by publicly declaring their intention not to extend its emission limits, despite the fact that Article 3, Paragraph 9, unambiguously requires the states party to the Kyoto Protocol to establish new limits after 2012 when the current limits expire.

In fact, most of the states with obligations under the Kyoto Protocol have not cut their emissions even by the modest -- and widely acknowledged inadequate -- requirements of that treaty. Many states will increase their overall emissions, but will be able to cloak their deficient action by buying the right to pollute from poorer states that do not have the capacity to pollute as much. This system of so-called "carbon trading" is allowing more pollution, instead of achieving the goal of the UNFCCC, which is to prevent the accumulation of dangerous levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and thus curb the acceleration of climate change caused by human beings.

In other words, states are allowed to buy the right to pollute from poorer states. It is akin to a licence to kill sold by poorer states struggling to achieve minimal development. The tragic irony of this system is that it keeps the world's wealth and development in the richer developed states, while the people who will suffer the most from the adverse impacts of climate change are found in the poorer developing states. Again, in Bonn, the majority of developing states either refused to abide by their legal obligation to extend the Kyoto Protocol's emission limits or affirmatively stated that they had no intention to do so. A minority of these states, mainly European, did reiterate their willingness to extend the emission limits in the Kyoto Protocol, but they did not move much closer to actually doing so. Instead, they conditioned their promise to do something that they are already legally obliged to do on concessions from developing countries to a new regime.

Even when China agreed to cuts its emission by 45 per cent and India by 20 per cent to 25 per cent, something they have no legal obligation to do, the developed states refused to commit to an unconditional extension of strengthened emission limits in the Kyoto Protocol. The consequence is that the developed states that pollute the most can continue to do so and again have failed to take adequate action to control or mitigate climate change.

Moreover, this failure of to act has been complimented, and its adverse impacts intensified, by the failure to pay for adaptation or the action needed by poorer, developing states that will be more affected. These states need resources to protect their people against climate change. It sometimes means money, but also that developed states and private industry therein will allow developing states to exploit the technology that is currently denied to them by an onerous system of intellectual property that disproportionately favours wealthy countries, companies, and individuals.

TOTAL DISASTER JUST AHEAD: The lamentable picture is further exacerbated by the effort of developed states to prevent even loosely related action that may force them to take adequate action on climate change.

There have been several recent examples of action by developed states to remove from the agenda of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) issues that could weaken their positions in climate talks. In the March meeting of the UNHRC, Switzerland convinced the tiny Maldives Islands to put forward what looked like a harmless resolution on the environment. The effect of the resolution, as a Swiss diplomat explained, was to turn back the clock on the action being taken by UNHRC on climate change. The British advisor to the Maldives further explained that climate change should not be on the agenda of the council. Indeed, if it were, then the human consequences of climate change would become more apparent and saving a few dollars instead of hundreds of millions of Africans lives might be less tolerated.

More recently, Norway brought together Nigeria and Argentina (coordinator of the Group of 77, which in fact represents 136 developing countries) to get them to push for ending the UNHRC's mandate on "Human Rights and Transnational Corporations and Business". Norway was well aware that their effort would prevent a mandate holder from being in place to raise the issue of the important contributions of private enterprise to climate change at the Durban meeting. In fact, the Norwegian-led move, which came after a recommendation for the appointment of a special representative of the secretary-general had already been made by ambassadors from all five regional groups, seemed mainly intended to again obscure the adverse human consequences of climate change that are caused by developed states.

As climate change affects people in almost every part of the world, it is not surprising that states have devised strategies to confront it in numerous different forums. Especially rich developed countries appear increasingly embarrassed by their legacy of polluting our planet. They have, however, chosen to deal with this guilt not by action, but by conscious inaction. It would appear as if they believe that they can bury the past and the present under the very ground that we commonly share. They may not have calculated, however, how dangerous such narrow-minded thinking may be for all of us.

* The writer is a prominent international human rights lawyer.

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