United Nations Archive 1

Rough Road from Durban to Rio


By Bill Miller

The 17th Conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that recently concluded in Durban, South Africa, has been categorized by such descriptive terms as “underwhelming,” “modest,” “positive” and “historic.” It may be a combination of all of them since there were both accomplishments and setbacks.

The 194 parties in attendance agreed to work toward a new global treaty and to extend the 1997 Kyoto Protocol for five years. The target date for the new international agreement is 2015, but it may not be ratified until 2020. Regardless of the date, the goal of holding the temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius to restrain irreparable climate change will not be met at this modest pace.

The conference developed a package called the “Durban Platform” that established a new climate fund to assist poor countries to confront climate change, prevent deforestation and convert to cleaner energy sources, but did not stipulate how the $100 billion for the Green Climate Fund would be generated.

On the positive side, China and India, which had been holdouts, did agree to abide by the same legally binding targets agreed to in the Kyoto Conference, although the Chinese accused the US of having a double-standard now that a large part of the industrial production and emissions that formerly were in the US are now in China.

Climate crisis alarms are ringing around the world. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)--which was set up in 1988 by the United Nations and the UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO) -- has been a major scientific player in climate change discussions and reports. The IPCC recently suggested that earthquakes may not be linked to climate change; however, it could be causal with severe droughts, flooding, hurricanes and other severe storms. Last year, all records were shattered when a dozen weather disasters in the US cost over $52 billion. Principal causes of the high expenses have been more severe disasters, larger populations and more valuable property in the path of the storms. As an example, the tsunami in Japan hit a staggering $261 billion which is the most expensive natural disaster recorded.

Other scientific reports offer even more distressing news: the decade between 2000-2009 was the warmest on record, with 2010 and 2005 the warmest years; desertification is expanding; hundreds of species are moving toward the poles; heat is reducing wheat yields; glaciers worldwide are rapidly contracting; ocean levels may rise from 35-63 inches by 2100; the Arctic Ocean summer ice cap shrunk by 50% and is expected to vanish between 2030 and 2040, according to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center.

With the melting of the ice pack, methane, a gas 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, is bubbling from beneath the Arctic Ocean. The Global Carbon Project, a consortium of international scientists, reported that emissions from carbon dioxide had surged 5.9%, the highest one-year jump on record. Also, carbon emissions far exceeded previous estimates by spiking an incredible 49% since 1990. And the litany of bad news continues.

One recent poll shows that Americans who believe in climate change fell precipitously from 71% to 51%. A large part of this decline may be attributed to a well-funded disinformation and misinformation campaign by the fossil fuel industry, primarily petroleum and coal, that funds pseudo-scientists to discredit the 95% of the scientists who professionally document changing climatic conditions. The corporate interests also manipulate the media to provide equal time to unscientific, delusional climate change deniers who create “doubt” through their baseless charges, much the way the tobacco companies did to confuse the public.

One of the most ridiculous examples was Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) who reiterated his fallacious claim that manmade global warming is “the greatest hoax ever,” even blaming the Weather Channel to be in on the conspiracy in order to jack-up its ratings. Senator Inhofe’s own church, the Presbyterian Church of the USA, has recognized, “Global climate change is predominantly caused by our burning of fossil fuels.”

The evidence is overwhelming that climate change is occurring. The media should ignore faux climate change researchers and lobbyists like the Global Climate Coalition, which was set up by the U.S oil and coal interests to tout how their products do not contribute to global warming. Their bogus pseudo-science is duplicitous, especially since one of their own scientific documents concluded that climate change is indisputable.

Climate change deniers had a rude awakening when one the few scientists who scorned climate change did a 180-degree reversal. Professor Richard Muller, a physicist at the University of Berkeley and a climate change skeptic, with some funds from the fossil fuel industry, endeavored to prove the 95% of the scientists who believe in climate change were wrong. Muller’s studies indicated that the climate change studies were correct and that the data had not been biased or manipulated. Muller’s former denialist colleagues proceeded to attack him as part of the conspiracy and questioned his motives and his scientific reasoning. Muller concluded that, “…global warming is real.”

Other significant voices supporting climate change include: Pope Benedict XVI believes there is a “global responsibility” to find the “moral will” to combat the “threatening catastrophe” of climate change. American ecumenical organizations, including Church World Service and the National Council of Churches of Christ, urged President Obama to achieve “a fair, ambitious and binding agreement that sets forth a truly moral response to climate change.” Of the 500 largest companies, nearly 400 have placed climate change as a critical component of their business, thus implementing projects to reduce emissions, save energy and train staff to focus on sustainability.

As the world moves well into the 21st Century, there are some maxims that should be considered:

1) Nations should continue to work through the UN to combat climate change; however, countries can take individual action, e.g. Obama Administration pushing increased automobile efficiency and tighter Environmental Protection Agency regulations that will eliminate several coal-fired power plants.

2) The main stream media, which excludes supplicants of the fossil fuel industry such as Fox News, should provide more objective coverage of the climate change debate and not give equal time to faux scientists that shill for the fossil fuel industry. The media are abandoning their main responsibility to inform the public. For example, in 2007, the three major networks did 147 stories on climate change; in 2010 they ran 32 stories. When the media give the climate change deniers equal coverage to espouse their discredited attacks, it is almost equivalent to providing a forum for the Flat Earth Society to debate.

3) Although alternative energy and green technology can produce millions of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue, it may also be challenging and painful to shift to a more environmentally –friendly economy. As Naomi Klein highlighted in an article for The Nation (November 9, 2011), “Capitalism vs. The Climate,” major changes should be implemented, such as replacing a more reckless, Wild West form of “free trade” with a more responsible trade that does not wreak havoc on the environment, destroy workers’ rights and eliminate jobs and encourage the public to over consume. Other approaches may be necessary, such as taxing the super-wealthy to pay their fair share in combating climate change; move from an overconsumption mentality to a more modest lifestyle; reject environmentally devastating projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline; reduce massive profits to a company’s shareholders; re-regulate the unaccountable corporate sector that has run amuck with reckless investments and criminal activities; and encourage the private and public sectors to move into renewable energy and conservation. In short, the extravagant consumptive economic model will need to change.

4) In 1950, the world population was 2.5 billion; whereas, on October 31, 2011, the UN predicted that the 7 billionth person was born. Burgeoning populations put more pressure on finite resources and damage a fragile environment through agricultural overgrazing, desertification and water pollution to mention a few. Climate change and overpopulation, which are inextricably linked, may be the two greatest challenges in the 21st Century. The Earth’s resources are stretched. Everyone, especially governments, must get serious about promoting voluntary family planning initiatives to maintain or even reduce the size of the population. Given current projections, the population will soar to nearly 10 billion by 2050, which is totally unsustainable. To get an update on this issue, go to the UN Population Fund at www.unfpa.org.

5) In 1992, the countries of the world met in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). UNCED produced several major initiatives, especially the concept of “sustainable development,” which highlighted the importance of utilizing the Earth’s resources, yet leaving them in a sustainable condition for future generations to use. Another UNCED legacy was Agenda 21, a 900-page compendium on how to conserve energy, promote sustainable development and emphasize efficiency and effectiveness in the energy areas.

From June 20-22, 2012, the countries of the world will meet in Rio de Janeiro for a “Rio + 20 Conference on Sustainable Development.” The crux of the discussions will focus on two main themes: building a green economy to achieve sustainable development and raise people out of poverty, including assistance to economically- developing countries that will assist them in locating a green path for development. A second goal will be to improve international coordination for sustainable development.

UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon was rather sober about the discussions in Durban saying “Binding climate change agreement may be beyond our reach--for now.” The Rio + 20 Conference offers another chance for the world to move forward and grasp the opportunity before the window slams shut. As painful as dealing with climate change may be today, it will be much more severe when the environmental deterioration worsens tomorrow.


Bill Miller, former Chair of the UN Association of the USA's Council of Chapter and Division Presidents, is the accredited Washington International journalist covering the UN and is the Producer/Moderator of “Global Connections Television.”