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Alert to the implications of climate change

Written By Gopal Krishna on Saturday, September 22, 2007 | 11:32 AM

Even as the IPCC's latest assessment speaks of the need for technocratic solutions to the challenge of global warming, the United Nations Security Council has signalled that this will be an issue of importance to questions of political stability and peace too.

There is now broad consensus in the scientific community that global warming, the crux of the emerging adverse climate condition, is directly linked to result of industrialisation in the last two and a half centuries. Before 1750, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere was about 280 parts per million by volume (ppmv). By 1994 it was 358 ppmv and rising by about 1.5 ppmv per year. If emissions continue at the 1994 rate, the concentration will be around 500 ppmv, nearly double the pre-industrial level, by the end of the 21st century. The effect of such high concentrations of this gas, along with other green house gases, is that the atmosphere retains more of the sun's heat, warming the earth's surface, and in the process raising leading to direct effects - sea levels, melting glaciers - as well as indirect ones, such as higher unpredictability in year-to-year variations in local climates.

So far there have been four assessments by the IPCC - in 1990, 1995, 2001 and partly in 2007. The Twenty-Seventh Session of the IPCC is scheduled to take place at Valencia, Spain from 12-17 November 2007 to adopt and approve of the draft Synthesis Report of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report.

In each assessment, the council has concluded that Earth's temperature is rising due to anthropogenic causes like fossil fuel burning. While alongside this there has been uncertainty about the exact magnitude of the increase, there is nonetheless high confidence in the change itself, especially when one looks at hydrological systems. Increased run-off and earlier spring peak discharge in many glacier- and snow-fed rivers have been well documented, as also the warming of lakes and rivers in many regions, with effects on thermal structure and water quality.

It is likely that changes of a high magnitude and rapidity could pose severe problems for many natural and managed ecosystems, as well as important economic sectors such as agriculture and water resources. Indeed, for many low-lying and deltaic areas and small islands, a sea level rise of one meter could threaten complete loss of land and extinction of habitation.

An inconvenient truth


What's the solution? With carbon emissions being at the heart of human economic activity on the planet, it is inescapable that structural change to the global economy, accompanied by cultural changes, is a must for decarbonisation. This is the basic truth that every government would rather not confront, because such changes would naturally incur tremendous costs. By 2030, the cost of stablising greenhouse gases at levels that are considered the maximum for avoiding catastrophic climate change would cost 0.2 per cent to 0.6 per cent of global wealth, according to the recent report of the IPCC. The World Bank's 'baseline' projection is that the world economy in 2030 will be US $75 trillion, then the 0.6 per cent required to stablise greenhouse gases would be approximately US $450 billion.

And if the cost alone is not daunting enough, there remains the challenge of lobbyists from business interests, especially those in the energy industry; this group has systematically underplayed the significance of climate change through its propoganda. Businesses have also been known, in several countries, to fund climate 'research' with the express purpose of creating output favourable to their views. In many industrialised countries, it is now germane to ask whether the government's interest, corporate interest or public interest guides research on climate change, as well as policies based on this.

Against this backdrop, even the more scientific and genuine of the recommendatory bodies have tended to prefer to tinker at the margins, rather than propose sweeping changes. If structural and cultural changes are ruled out, and if powerful businesses with close ties to nearly all governments continue to call the shots in back rooms, natually the proposals for tackling climate will tend to be technocentric, to mitigate possible adverse climate change, rather than solve it. Unfortunately, even the once-weighty IPCC is now walking this weak path, with its references to "a major expansion in nuclear power, the use of GM crops to boost biofuel production", and a few as-yet-unproven technologies as potential mitigating options.

But an unavoidable truth, nonetheless


In any case, history provides ample testimony to the fact that 'official truth' must eventually face up to the real truth. Thus, all the marketing commuication and policy decisions that business interests can muster, however, cannot overcome the very real effects of climate change that people themselves witness. When lives are directly affected by climate change, and the social and economic condition of any society changes, there are immediate political consequences. With increasingly numerous incidents of unpredictable and severe weather around the world, even those who would normally prefer to wish the problem away must take notice. It is no surprise, therefore, that in April this year the UN Security Council held its first-ever discussion on climate change as a serious threat to security and future political stability, at its New York headquarters.

Although no action emerged from the meeting, it reveals growing uneasiness within the capitalist world about social unrest that is likely to come about as a result of global warming. In addition to the 15 council member states in attendance, 38 other UN member countries sent representatives to speak. Representatives at the meeting also discussed the recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the upcoming negotiations in Bali in late 2007 on the post-2012 framework for addressing climate change when the Kyoto Protocol's first commitment period expires.

At the meeting, a number of countries, including China, India, Russia, Venezuela, and Pakistan besides many in the Group of 77 raised doubts over the Security Council's role on this issue, with some suggesting that it was primarily a socio-economic and/or sustainable development issue that should be addressed by UN General Assembly instead. But the British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, the current president of the Security Council disagreed saying, "The Security Council is the forum to discuss issues that threaten the peace and security of the international community. What makes wars start? Fights over water. Changing patterns of rainfall. Fights over food production, land use," she said. "There are few greater potential threats to our economies ... but also to peace and security itself." Expressing her concern about the poorest populations of the globe, she predicted global economic convulsions on a scale similar to those associated with the great wars and the economic depression of the first half of the 20th century. The fear of the developed countries which have inappropriately linked population with environment and health must be viewed in the backdrop of an expected increase of the world?s population to eight billion by 2030.

Another sign that climate changes is an unavoidable truth is seen in the internal conversations of countries. Privately, governments are alert to the risks posed by climate change, even though their positions in international agreements on limiting carbon emissions may convey the opposite. Take the US, for instance. While unwilling to embrace reductions in carbon emissions, the US government is internally examining the challenges that will result nonetheless. According to the report, National Security and the Threat of Climate Change, by the government-funded national security think tank, the Center for Naval Analyses, global climate change presents a serious national security threat, which could impact Americans at home, impact US military operations, and heighten global tensions. The Military Advisory Board and the study team that has authored the report received briefings from the U.S. and U.K. intelligence community, climate scientists, and business and state leaders. The report recommends, "Military planning should view climate change as a threat to the balance of energy access, water supplies, and a healthy environment, and it should require a response."

It draws an analogy with Cold War saying, "The situation, for much of the Cold War, was stable," One of the authors of the report, General Gordon R. Sullivan, USA, Chairman, Military Advisory Board and former Chief of Staff, U.S. Army continued, "And the challenge was to keep it stable, to stop the cata-strophic event from happening. We spent billions on that strategy. Climate change is exactly the opposite. We have a catastrophic event that appears to be inevitable. And the challenge is to stabilise things-to stabilise carbon in the atmosphere. Back then, the challenge was to stop a particular action. Now, the challenge is to inspire a particular action. We have to act if we're to avoid the worst effects."

The Indian envoy's position appeared ambiguous. Nirupam Sen first spoke of poverty eradication to mitigate the potential for conflict, and sought new and additional resources, to upscale the realisation of resources from the carbon market. But following this, he denied that greenhouse emissions from developing countries could threaten international peace and security in any way. In any event, he believed that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change - and not the UNSC - was the right forum to discuss the issue.

Only a beginning


That the meeting took place at all, is a sure sign that the global powers are tuned in to the potentially destabilising impact of climate change in political affairs. The technocratic solutions being talked of should also be seen in this light. They may be non-starters, or even irrelevant - the earlier example of failed technocratic solutions to malnutrition and poverty is still recent enough ro remember well - but the inevitability of having to confront and overcome the challenge drives the need for solutions of one kind or another. More such meetings will follow, no doubt, with increasingly more substance, and in many more fora.

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