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CLIMATE CHANGE: Chasm Widens Between Science and Policy

Analysis by Stephen Leahy

QUEBEC CITY, Canada, Dec 15 2008 (IPS) - The roof of our house is on fire while the leaders of our family sit comfortably in the living room below preoccupied with “political realities” – that was essentially the message from 1,000 scientists from around the world along with northern indigenous leaders gathered in Quebec City for the International Arctic Change conference that concluded last weekend.

“Climate change and its impacts are accelerating at unexpected rates with global consequences,” delegates warned in a statement.

Presenting data from hundreds of studies and research projects detailing the Arctic region’s rapid meltdown and cascading ecological impacts, participants urged governments to take “immediate measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”.

By happy coincidence, 190 governments were meeting at the same time in Poznan, Poland to do just that: reach an agreement on how much to reduce emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. Except that they decided to do nothing. They couldn’t even agree to help poorer nations survive the ever-worsening climate crisis by providing funds to strengthen infrastructure, build flood defences and improve agriculture.

In chance hallway encounters in Quebec City, scientists – strictly off the record for fear of losing funding – said climate change is happening far faster and is having much larger impacts than they ever imagined.

“Climate change will be an overwhelming global tragedy without major reductions now,” said one Canadian expert.


In Poznan, politicians declared the meeting a success and pledged to agree to cut emissions at next year’s meeting in Copenhagen.

Meanwhile, the physics of carbon and climate will not wait for economic recovery or a more felicitous political climate.

In 1992, the global community came together in Rio de Janeiro, agreed climate change was a real danger and promised to reduce their emissions of CO2 and other global warming gases. It took five years to create the first climate change treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, which committed rich countries to emissions reductions of five percent below their 1990 levels.

Many countries will meet their very modest reduction targets – with notable exceptions like Canada and Japan, which are grossly over-target by 30 percent. But as far as the atmosphere is concerned, all that counts is global CO2 emissions, and they’ve skyrocketed.

Emissions of CO2 have been growing about four times faster since 2000 than during the previous decade, despite efforts to curb emissions in a number of Kyoto Protocol signatory countries, reports the Global Carbon Project, an international collaboration of climate scientists.

“This new update of the carbon budget shows the acceleration of both CO2 emissions and atmospheric accumulation is unprecedented and most astonishing during a decade of intense international developments to address climate change,” said Pep Canadell, executive director of the Global Carbon Project, in a statement last September.

The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere today is well ahead of worst-case projections, hence the accelerating meltdown in the Arctic.

Rather than panicking, governments of Arctic countries seem preoccupied with what they view as an opportunity to exploit the region for its potential energy resources, said Michael Byers, an international law expert at the University of British Columbia in Canada. “National governments don’t get it. We need to keep oil and gas where it is, in the ground,” Byers told IPS in Quebec City.

Canada’s federal government led by Stephen Harper certainly doesn’t get it. In an assessment of performance on climate change released in Poznan by an international coalition of environmental groups, Canada ranked last amongst developed countries and was second only to Saudi Arabia of the 57 largest greenhouse-gas emitters regarding their performance in fighting climate change.

During the Poznan climate talks, Canada was frequently cited for delaying and obstructing agreement during the negotiations. Copying the George W. Bush administration’s contempt for science, the Harper government refused to allow Canada’s leading government scientist on climate, Don MacIver, to go Poznan, even though he was scheduled to speak and his travel costs were paid for.

Fearing continuing “house arrest” under the current government, MacIver has resigned his position as chair of conference organising at the World Meteorological Organisation.

While governments fail to get it, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 stand at 383 parts per million (ppm) and are climbing at two to three ppm per year. Pre-industrial CO2 levels averaged 270 ppm and some climate experts are calling for the need to return to below 350 ppm to truly stabilise the planet.

Three million years ago, when CO2 was estimated to be 400 ppm, new fossil evidence shows forests dominated the Arctic instead the ice, snow and permafrost. Sea levels were 24 meteres higher than today, according to the new study by the U.S. Geological Survey.

In a contest between the relentless physics of climate change and continuing political paralysis, our home is doomed to burn to the ground. Many climate activists say that only a grassroots revolution, a global rebellion that overturns the fossil-fuel economic hegemony, will save us now.

 
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