Our last chance for a safe planet

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Hu­man­ity has just about run out of time to ad­dress cli­mate change. Sci­en­tists have pointed out that a rise in tem­per­a­ture of 2º Cel­sius above pre-in­dus­trial lev­els will put the Earth in dan­ger­ous, un­charted ter­ri­tory. Yet we cur­rently are on a path to­ward an in­crease of 4C or more this century. The last chance for ac­tion has ar­rived.

That chance lies in Paris in De­cem­ber 2015, when the world’s gov­ern­ments meet for the 21st an­nual United Na­tions cli­mat­e­change meet­ing. But this time will be dif­fer­ent. Ei­ther gov­ern­ments will agree to de­ci­sive ac­tion, as they have promised, or we will look back at 2015 as the year when cli­mate san­ity slipped through our fin­gers.

In 1992, the world’s gov­ern­ments adopted the UN Frame­work Con­ven­tion on Cli­mate Change, promis­ing to avoid “dan­ger­ous an­thro­pogenic [hu­man-in­duced] in­ter­fer­ence in the cli­mate sys­tem” by re­duc­ing the rate of emis­sion of green­house gases, es­pe­cially car­bon diox­ide. But, though the treaty en­tered into force in 1994, the rate of emis­sions of green­house gases, in­clud­ing CO2, has ac­tu­ally in­creased.

In 1992, global com­bus­tion of coal, oil, and gas, plus ce­ment pro­duc­tion, re­leased 22.6 bln tons of CO2 into the air. In 2012, the most re­cent year for which com­pa­ra­ble data are avail­able, emis­sions were 34.5 bln tons. Hu­man­ity has ac­cel­er­ated, rather than con­trolled, hu­man-in­duced cli­mate change.

This is now the great­est moral is­sue of our time.

Global fos­sil-fuel use gravely threat­ens the poor, who are the most vul­ner­a­ble to cli­mate change (though the rich are the main cause), and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions, who will in­herit a planet that has be­come un­liv­able in many places, with food sup­ply sub­ject to mas­sive shocks.

We are caus­ing this harm in an age when tech­no­log­i­cal break­throughs en­able the world to shift from dan­ger­ous fos­sil fu­els to low-car­bon en­ergy sources, such as wind, so­lar, nu­clear, and hy­dro, and re­duce the im­pact of fos­sil fu­els by us­ing car­bon cap­ture and stor­age (CCS) tech­nol­ogy. Pope Fran­cis re­cently put it just right: “Safe­guard Cre­ation,” he said. “Be­cause if we de­stroy Cre­ation, Cre­ation will de­stroy us! Never for­get this!”

Yet, for the many pow­er­ful in­ter­ests, cli­mate change re­mains a game, with the goal be­ing to de­lay ac­tion for as long as pos­si­ble. The gi­ant fos­sil-fuel com­pa­nies have con­tin­ued to lobby be­hind the scenes against the shift to low-car­bon en­ergy, and have used their vast wealth to buy me­dia cov­er­age de­signed to sow con­fu­sion. Ru­pert Mur­doch’s me­dia em­pire in the United States, the United King­dom, Aus­tralia, and else­where stands out as play­ing a par­tic­u­larly cyn­i­cal and harm­ful role in spread­ing an­ti­sci­en­tific pro­pa­ganda.

Even so, the pol­i­tics of cli­mate change may be chang­ing for the bet­ter – a change re­flected in the Pope’s force­ful mes­sage. Here are six rea­sons why the stale­mate might soon end.

First, the world is wak­ing up to the calamity that we are caus­ing. Though the Mur­doch pro­pa­ganda ma­chine churns out a daily stream of anti-sci­en­tific false­hoods, the pub­lic also sees pro­longed droughts (now in parts of Brazil, Cal­i­for­nia, and South­east Asia, to name a few places), mas­sive floods (re­cently in Bos­nia and Ser­bia), and lethal heat waves (in many parts of the world).

Sec­ond, the world’s cit­i­zens do not want to go down in flames.

Pub­lic opin­ion has so far suc­ceeded in block­ing the con­struc­tion of the Key­stone XL Pipe­line, which would ac­cel­er­ate the pro­duc­tion of Canada’s oil sands – a shock­ing prospect, given that nei­ther Canada nor the US yet have com­mit­ted to a cli­mate plan.

Third, more se­vere cli­mate shocks may lie ahead. This year could prove to be a ma­jor El Niño year, when the wa­ters of the East­ern Pa­cific warm and cre­ate global cli­mate dis­rup­tions. A big El Niño now would be even more dan­ger­ous than usual, be­cause it would add to the over­all ris­ing trend in global tem­per­a­tures.

In­deed, many sci­en­tists be­lieve that a big El Niño could make 2015 the hottest year in the Earth’s his­tory.

Fourth, both the US and China, the two largest emit­ters of CO2, are fi­nally be­gin­ning to get se­ri­ous. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion is try­ing to stop the con­struc­tion of new coal-fired power plants, un­less they are equipped with CCS tech­nol­ogy. China, for its part, has re­al­ized that its heavy de­pen­dence on coal is caus­ing such dev­as­tat­ing pol­lu­tion and smog that it is leading to mas­sive loss of life, with life ex­pectancy down as much as five years in re­gions with heavy coal con­sump­tion.

Fifth, the Paris ne­go­ti­a­tions are fi­nally be­gin­ning to at­tract global at­ten­tion from both the pub­lic and world lead­ers. UN Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Ban Ki-moon has called for po­lit­i­cal lead­ers to at­tend a spe­cial sum­mit in Septem­ber 2014, 14 months ahead of the Paris meet­ing, to launch in­ten­sive ne­go­ti­a­tions. The UN ex­pert net­work that I di­rect, the Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment So­lu­tions Net­work (UN SDSN), will is­sue a ma­jor re­port in July on how each of the ma­jor economies can suc­cess­fully de­car­bonise the en­ergy sys­tem.

Fi­nally, tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances in low­car­bon en­ergy sys­tems, in­clud­ing pho­to­voltaics, elec­tric ve­hi­cles, CCS, and fourth-gen­er­a­tion nu­clear power with greatly en­hanced safety fea­tures, all help make the tran­si­tion to low-cost, low-car­bon en­ergy tech­no­log­i­cally real­is­tic, with huge ben­e­fits for hu­man health and plan­e­tary safety.

Start­ing this fall, the UN SDSN will cre­ate a plat­form for all global cit­i­zens to par­tic­i­pate in the hard work of sav­ing the planet. The SDSN will of­fer a free, on­line in­tro­duc­tory course to cli­mate change, and then host a global on­line “ne­go­ti­a­tion” of a global cli­mate agree­ment.

We ex­pect that hun­dreds of thou­sands, per­haps mil­lions, of in­ter­ested cit­i­zens world­wide will par­tic­i­pate on­line, show­ing the way for the politi­cians. The con­trol of cli­mate change is a moral im­per­a­tive and a prac­ti­cal ne­ces­sity – far too im­por­tant to be left to politi­cians, Big Oil, and their me­dia pro­pa­gan­dists.

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