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Climate Change won't go away – so get the basics right now

Florian Kitt's picture

Editor's note: This post is part of Blog Action Day on climate change. For more information, visit blogactionday.org.

Apologies for having been out of touch since Carbon Expo. I needed a break, and summer in Croatia proved one can have a life beyond international development and carbon finance. Climate change, however, very much stayed on my mind with reports of wildfires in the United States and Greece. Clearly, one cannot escape all-encompassing global change, in particular when negotiations have now started in earnest on a post-2012 treaty to reduce carbon emissions and provide financing for developing countries.

Some still think that climate change is just a buzz topic and will quietly disappear from global attention. Let me assure you that many people in East Asian and Pacific countries would disagree. They are hit by natural disasters, which in recent years not only steadily increased in frequency, but also in intensity.

Just about a week ago the Philippine capital of Manila was flooded as a consequence of tropical storm Ondoy. One of my Filipino colleagues told me about how people there are now faced with mud and trash after the floods receded. At the same time Samoa and Tonga were nearly washed away by a giant sea wave from an undersea quake. Still skeptical about climate change? Then you may wish to talk face-to-face to these Pacific Islanders who are desperately looking for terra firma to escape further tragedy.

Better information is certainly crucial to a global wake-up call that we have to act now and act fast. One may not persuade the most ardent skeptics, such as Czech President Vaclav Klaus, but it might help increase the mass of people wanting change and empower governments to make the right decisions. Timely and precise knowledge might at least help journalists get the basics right, so the New York Times does not end up in Oslo when the final negotiating round takes place in Copenhagen, or the German TAZ might improve on its Japanese spelling (the city’s name is Kyoto not Kioto).

Quoi qu’il en soit key to ensure that land and sea don’t become uninhabitable for men, mice, and coral reefs is an agreement by all nations to cap greenhouse gas emissions after 2012 and to finance technology transfers and adaptation to the unavoidable changes. Much is at stake in Copenhagen in December: the foundation of the wealth of nations has so far been powered by dirty industrial growth and the unsustainable usage of basic resources such as forests and simply the lives of future generations.

Clearly this is not an easy call. Powerful financial interests are at stake in both developed and developing countries. Though all concur on the baseline that something has to be done soon, agreement how exactly and who coughs up how much money is still far away. The three big negotiating powers – the G77, the US and the European Union -- cannot even agree from which baseline to start negotiating – the old Kyoto treaty, something like it or a new treaty entirely.

Copenhagen could be a big success or leave the world in a situation similar to the Doha round – only that less trade does not destroy the planet (economists are invited to disagree). At present, everybody is set for an intermediate failure and more negotiations in 2010.

This will most probably involve the prickly topic of financing change, especially in developing countries. After all they need more than just funding to introduce low carbon economies, trying to fundamentally change the development paradigm (growth based on dirty industries and cheap and carbon intensive energy). They also face the biggest adaptation challenges to the rising uncertainties of droughts, storms, rising sea levels, salination of rivers, falling crops, and unpredictable weather events.

As in a divorce settlement, we are likely to see lots of true and untrue arguments, outright lies, and efforts to charm the rival party. Only thing is that we are all affected by it and need action fast. But more about that in my next post, “It’s all about the money.”

This word cloud gives greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in this post. Hi-res version. Created using Wordle.

 

Comments

I agree Zeeshan, but am glad to count you among the growing number of allies for change in East Asia and the Pacific. Best Florian

Submitted by Thomas vdb on
Storms are atmosphere stuff, I'm not sure however you can say an underwater earthquake is linked to climate change ... (for Samoa and Tonga example) This area is one of the most active place on earth for earthquakes, and we know it will still be for a long time. Unfortunately this is also a very sea-oriented area for population living on the shore or on islands, and who are indeed dramatically affected by sea-level rise due to ice melt due to global warming.

Dear Thomas, earthquakes may not be directly linked to climate change, but with sea level rise their impact in terms of flooding certainly increase with regard to the landmass at risk (sea Pacific Islands or Coastal Cities). So in effect I do agree with you and it demonstrates the magnitude of climate change issue in terms of interrelated effects. However, unfortunate it may be it is an issue that the global community needs to address and where disaster risk mitigation and climate mitigation and adaptation intersect. Glad to discuss this in more detail. Cheers

Climate Change may cause intensification of extreme events and increase their frequency of occurrence. In most of literature, extreme climate related events are those that deviate heavily from the norm, i.e. hydrometeorological events such as heat and cold waves, extreme precipitation, exceptional storm surge, floods and droughts. Generally the use of the term 'extreme event' is not associated with rare or 'low probability' natural disasters even though their impact may be extremely destructive, such as tsunamis or earthquakes. The frequency and occurrence of those low probability extreme events is not related to climate change. Nevertheless, the level of destructive impacts they can provoke is. A low resilient environment may evidently suffer the most even from low probability extreme events.

Submitted by PAMELA GUNIO on
I have lived my childhood years in Manila,and remember those typhoons that passed every year. Enjoyed the no classes days because of the ocassion of floods. After all, Philippines sits near the typhoon belt, something we learned at an early age. So, you would think that its normal but one thing that is not is the degree that these natural disasters have become. One month worth of rain in 6 hours that Typhoon Ondoy has brought in Manila, that's ridiculous. No doubt that climate change has something to do with this. I agree with back to basics but slightly in a different sense. I am thinking in a smaller scale. Recycling, planting trees, carpooling, and other elementary things that everyone is capable to do. As a developing country, I realized that every other year that we go home to visit, a new shopping mall or highway road has been built of what used to be full of trees. These infrastructures are good for the growth of our economy but hopes that there is a way to balance both. Also, I believe that local government needs to prioritize things like fixing the sewage of their own cities in a regular basis to avoid the extremity of these typhoons. You know how greedy these politicians can be in developing countries and its a shame that they hold such power that they can use for the good of all not for themselves alone. We need to accept that we live in a new age where small or big decisions we make with nature will definitely have a greater effect wherever we live. That is the thing with nature, everyone is equal from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, US (a developed country) to Typhoon Ondoy in Manila,Philippines (developing country).

Pamela, thanks for your comment first. I certainly do agree with you that we need to both act on the small local and individual level but also connect it to a bigger push on the global, regional, and state level. Global agreements and promises should translate into national and regional policies, plans and initiatives that are then implemented on the ground. Certainly everyone has a role to play here even in her/his private life. I hope to address such issues in one of the next contributions. Your ideas are very helpful in there. Florian

Submitted by Mo on
What would you suggest for up and coming students that wish to help on the fronts of development and more specifically environmental protection? Is it more useful to study economics or to specialize in a science? Im an undergraduate who is torn on the subject and I am looking for advice from anyone who will listen!

Mo, let me first of all say that I personally think one should study what one is most interested in. I for example studied IR and still love it. that being said and given your interest I would suggest to study environmental economics (there are courses on this) but with a focus on the economic and environmental theory. After all it is the complexity of theory that forms your mind. You can then start applying it in a job. The Toulouse guys, LERNA, have a good environmental economics program. Hope this helps.

Submitted by scholar warrior on
Dear Florian, I agree with the observation of some of the people here (and most out there) that there is a tendency to link any devastating calamity to global warming, even those that are seemingly far fetched. Climate change happens and will happen whether or not we spew something in the atmosphere. The earth is dynamic and has been for billions of years, yes, we probably our forefathers in the industrial boom have caused this change to occur at a much faster pace, can we slow down or reverse whatever has been done in the past? Nobody can say for sure. The earth has its own way of maintaining balance to itself, a process that we still do not fully comprehend. A volcano erupting somewhere, a specie lost, a chemical introduced to the ecosystem, nobody knows for sure what adjustments the planet would do to one of these things happening, what more if these happen at the same time. The planet is adjusting, and those adjustment may or may not have anything to do with what happened to the devastated areas you mentioned. If you can show me the specific linkages please do. That said, I believe we should still try to do something. While climate change appears to have caught the attention of many scholars, the media, policy makers and world leaders, it is but a small part under the big umbrella of environmental degradation, which sadly has been pushed out of the limelight. Population is growing at an alarming rate, a big share of that population is becoming more and more affluent (China and India to name a few) and would be demanding more resources, probably more than what the planet can produce. Companies in their drive to produce faster, and in bigger quantities introduce chemicals and processes that alter the environment, plants, animals, deplete water resources, devastate the land etc., and you don't need to wait 50 years to see the effects of these things. Go to any city and you'll see dead rivers, polluted streams and garbage. This can be linked more to dying species, deforestation, new diseases, war over resources, than some polar ice melting somewhere. What makes it worse is that everybody is talking about Climate change and how to make money out of the right to spew greenhouse gasses. We are also made to appear powerless by mainstream media (all of which depend on environmental degraders and oil companies for advertising revenue), who frame news as though the world depends on what leaders, policy makers, states and corporation decide to do, which should not be the case. We should remember that these companies exist because there's a global need that they fill - our needs for food, shelter, clothing, water, energy. We make them exist everytime we buy their products and services. Incandescent bulb makers ceased to exist (or forced to sell better things) because we opted to buy more energy efficient lightbulbs for example. If we can find a way to be informed and inform others about the impact of particular goods or specific brands to the environment, and suggest alternatives, those brands will cease to exist or at least be forced to innovate. Right now, for example, there is no incentive for alternative fuel innovators to exist because we don't make them competitive by supporting them with our purchases. Coal burning plants still exist because we don't demand for natural gas, geothermal, hydro, solar and wind power, and the reason we don't demand is simply because we don't know which products and services are made using coal power. The debade on environmental degradation should not be focused on climate change alone. It should be wholistic, and the market scheme (wherether it be trading carbon, or some other spewage) should not just be between companies and governments, the people should have a big part in that, and democratized media/information technology (internet/mobile) can make that happen.

Dear scholar warrior, we actually discussed whether climate has hijacked the environmental at one of our internal environments recently. We came to the conclusion that environmental degradation certainly is larger than "just" climate change (CC) and that there many more challenges to be addressed but that in the end CC is the overarching one threatening to worsen most of the other challenges as well. Just as an example the environment in and around the East Asian Seas is highly threatened due to waste of all forms which is dumped in or near to the sea. This threatens not just fish but also men and many other living organisms. Now climate change one could argue is not really in this scenario. However it actually is. Just thinking about the melting polar caps which will in the medium term lead to rising sea levels two things will happen: a) waste currently dumped near the shores will be washed into the sea further aggravating sea pollution, and b) large areas may be flooded with poisonous substances further degrading land. So in principle I agree with you that we need to act now to stop environmental degradation but we also need to urgently arrest climate change. I disagree that the earth will self adjust. There are visible and disturbing effect of climate change and so far the effects are not slowing down but are actually appearing faster than conservatively expected. I also disagree that leaders, policy-makers etc cannot bring about change. As an example renewable energy received a big push in Germany through regulations on feed-in tariffs etc. It's more about creating incentives and penalties. In my view it's primarily about governments enforcing change, companies then have to follow suit. Yes consumers do have power but they are unlikely to be willing to pay the price tag for green solutions if they do not have to. And climate change is about scale and the poorest simply cannot afford green choices without help. Which is why we are focusing our development on climate change and on helping the poor with innovative and low cost solutions. Glad to discuss further.

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