United Nations Archive 1

Climate Change: #1 Challenge


By Bill Miller

The climate is changing quite rapidly and dramatically. Sea levels and temperatures are rising, species are disappearing, climatic conditions are becoming more extreme, desertification and drought are accelerating, storms are more frequent and violent, glaciers are melting and reefs are bleaching and deteriorating at an alarming rate, primarily because of human activities. Burning of fossil fuels and other human activities are the main culprits, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The IPCC, which was established by the UN in 1988 and currently consists of over 800 eminent scientists, will issue its fifth report later in the fall, but some of the preliminary findings were leaked early.

Some of the IPCC recommendations and conclusions are sobering:

  1. In the 2007 report, the IPCC indicated the 'unequivocal' link of warming with humans, indicating that possibly 90% of the climate change was because of humans. The recent 2013 report is more forceful, bumping the probability up to 95%. Previously, the IPCC has often been accused of being rather cautious, even conservative, in directly connecting the extreme weather and climatic changes to human activities.
  2. Sea levels could conceivably rise by three feet by 2100 if current levels of emissions are maintained. Even more daunting than the IPCC study is a recent National Academy of Sciences study that indicates a worse-case scenario. With a temperature gain of 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 Fahrenheit) the seas would rise nearly 30 feet. Many island countries, such as the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, and coastal areas worldwide would be inundated. Closer to home, low-lying parts of urban Queens, New York flood frequently. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is pursuing possibly investing $20 billion over the next several years to protect 520 miles of coastline from rising sea levels. That is just one city of the thousands that will be affected worldwide. At current global warming levels, over 1,400 US cities will be adversely affected by 2100.
  3. The temperature rise could be as low as 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit, but could be 5 degrees or more if carbon dioxide levels double. NASA has reported, along with other scientific bodies, that 2012 was the ninth hottest year on record, and the nine warmest years have all occurred since 1996. This is not a climatic aberration, but the evolution of a troublesome pattern.

The UN 's IPCC is the international mainstay in providing a forum for climate change discussion, securing scientific information, conducting evaluations and developing major reports on the contentious issue of climate change.

The first of the five IPCC reports was released in 1990. Although the 2013 report had over 800 reputable scientists involved, they did not do the initial research. The IPCC, which was a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, along with former US Vice-President Al Gore, reviews the scientific literature that has been published by scientists, governmental agencies and other groups, and then draws its conclusions and makes recommendations. The IPCC is widely-viewed as one of the most credible entities in the scientific community.

Other parts of the UN have helped to shine the spotlight on the climate change issue for two major reasons. From the time that Ban Ki-moon, the eighth Secretary-General of the UN, took office in 2007, he has made climate change one of his top five priorities. Ban has pushed the issue with governmental leaders, the private sector, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the general public. In a dramatic eleventh hour intervention in a 2007 Climate Change Conference in Bali, which was on the verge of collapse, Ban passionately and persuasively warned that it was necessary to prevent climate change and that it was the 'moral challenge of our generation.' He turned the conference around.

Ban also led delegations to the Arctic, Antarctic and the Amazon Basin to view the negative effects of climate change first-hand.

Another role played by the UN has been to convene major international conferences on environment and sustainable development. Of the various climate conferences, two of the most important were in Rio de Janeiro.

In June 1992, the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), commonly called the Earth Summit, produced the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development; Agenda 21 (a voluminous list of suggestions on how to promote sustainable development, conserve resources and reduce energy costs); Forest Principles; the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The 'Rio + 20 Conference on Sustainable Development,' held in June of 2013, exactly 20 years after the Earth Summit, was characterized as 'modest,' primarily because it failed to secure a Grand Bargain that the countries of the world would accept that would identify specific actions and timelines to confront the devastating consequences of climate change.

The most important achievement at the Rio + 20 Conference was that more than $500 billion, with over 700 commitments, was made to take action on sustainable development initiatives. These commitments addressed a myriad of global issues that include access to clean energy, food security, water and sustainable transportation.

There was also a call for a vast range of actions, including countries to re-commit themselves to sustainable development, establishing a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs) and launching a high-level political forum on sustainable development.

At a UN Conference in Bonn, Germany, in 2013, the participants discussed the looming 2015 deadline (which is hanging like the proverbial Sword of Damocles) for implementing a new binding global climate pact. This agreement is even more pressing since global carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere recently surpassed the crucial threshold of 400 parts per million (PPM).

This international agreement would be applicable to all countries, adopted by 2015 and implemented by 2020. Although it will be an uphill battle, the main goal is keep global temperatures from rising more than 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures.

Although the scientific evidence regarding climate change is overwhelming, there are many obstacles to realizing how devastating this could be. Some obvious impediments are:

-- The media do not cover the issue adequately. The IPCC report was a one-day story in most media outlets. Climate change is so profound and devastating that the media should cover it on a daily basis.

-- There are huge amounts of money funneled into advertising and faux-science by the fossil fuel industry, such as coal, petroleum and gas, to create doubt that climate change exists. The debate is over, climate change is impacting us. This is the same technique used by the tobacco companies to disabuse a link between smoking and cancer. 

-- Another subterfuge by the fossil fuel industry is that cheap, plentiful fuel is readily available by building an XL Pipeline to transport tar sands sludge from Canada, mining the melting Arctic, extracting coal in East Kentucky or Wyoming or fracking for gas. 

The facts are that the Keystone XL Pipeline, if approved by President Obama, is predicted to wreak environmental havoc on the environment, aquifers and terrain.

Although Arctic shipping lanes would be open in summer, thus saving large sums of money and time for ships, as well as drilling for oil and natural gas, many predictions are not so rosy regarding the melting Arctic. The University of Cambridge predicts Arctic mining would cost the world over $60 trillion due to rapid melting, rising sea levels, crop devastation and methane gas releases. Methane is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, even though it dissipates more quickly in the atmosphere.

Coal mining has moved from deep mining to mountain top removal and strip mining in many areas, which still pollutes, distorts the landscape and enhances black lung disease. Fracking shale for natural gas has brought gas prices down quite dramatically and devastated the coal industry. Although coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel, it may have been given a reprieve as more studies indicate that fracking is extremely detrimental because it consumes large sums of water (often in areas that are in drought), pumps toxic chemicals into the porous earth that may get into water supplies, produces deadly methane and is becoming more linked with earthquakes.

Even though the horrendous civil war in Syria is occupying the front pages of every newspaper in the country, climate change still remains the #1 problem because it affects all 7.2 billion people on the Earth. The challenge is to be aware that a changing climate is like a slow-motion car wreck. When the final impact is felt, it will be too late.

Although the politicians, businesses and public clamor for more jobs, it is imperative to comprehend there are millions of jobs in clean energy sources, which are more beneficial to the society and cheaper to secure. The solar energy industry employed over 100,000 people and was 20 times larger than in 2002. Last year, the US lost over $140 billion due to wildfires, crop losses and other climate devastation, which amounted to $1,100 per taxpayer.

Bill McKibben, President and Co-Founder of 350.org, summed it up in a dour article in theNew York Times, Dec. 5, 2010.

'There’s no happy ending where we prevent climate change any more. Now the question is, is it going to be a miserable century or an impossible one, and what comes after that.”

The choices are bleak but the choice is ours to make. What comes after that? The policymakers may be pursuing the wrong approach by asking how can they extract fossil fuels more cheaply. Given that all fossil fuels are devastating to the environment and many living organisms, perhaps the UN and enlightened leaders in the public and private sectors should launch a worldwide campaign called OFFF--Out of Fossil Fuels Forever.

Bill Miller, is the accredited Washington International journalist covering the UN and is the Producer/Moderator of “Global Connections Television.”