Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The most important story of the last month which you never heard

The online environmental news magazine Grist says that
[a] Google search shows that the story has barely made a blip in the U.S. media - with minor reports on CNN online, CBS online, Salon.com, and in a few other places, and with "papers of record" like The New York Times remaining utterly silent.
Meanwhile, at least 33 major foreign news sources including Reuters and the BBC as well as major national newspapers in the UK, Australia, Turkey, South Africa, India, and New Zealand have given it serious attention.

What was this story that we mostly ignored but the rest of the world thought so newsworthy? This, from the Guardian (UK) for October 11:
An unexplained and unprecedented rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere two years running has raised fears that the world may be on the brink of runaway global warming.
Scientists say it's too soon to be confident of long-term predictions - two years does not necessarily a trend make - but admit they are baffled as to the cause of the increase since it runs counter to the pattern of previous large increases. Those took place in El NiƱo years - and these two years haven't been. And the increases have been significant: The 2002 increase was over 38% above the yearly average of the last several decades and 2003's was nearly 70% above average.
[T]he fear held by some scientists is that the greater than normal rises in C02 emissions mean that instead of decades to bring global warming under control we may have only a few years. At worst, the figures could be the first sign of the breakdown in the Earth's natural systems for absorbing the gas.

That would herald the so-called "runaway greenhouse effect", where the planet's soaring temperature becomes impossible to contain. As the icecaps melt, less sunlight is reflected back into space from ice and snow, and bare rocks begin to absorb more heat. This is already happening.
Charles Keeling, whose pioneering work on climate change in the early 1970s first raised the alarm about the dangers we faced, said
"The rise in the annual rate to above two parts per million for two consecutive years is a real phenomenon.

"It is possible that this is merely a reflection of natural events like previous peaks in the rate, but it is also possible that it is the beginning of a natural process unprecedented in the record."
If Dr. Keeling and the other worried scientists are correct - and as they themselves acknowledge, it's still an if - but if they're correct we could be standing on the brink of literally, literally, an environmental catastrophe.

And the fact is, even if they're wrong, even if the breakout point for runaway climate change is still a ways off, that's no reason for complacency because not only the environmental but the economic and social dangers are already facing us.
London (AFP, October 20) - Environmental and development groups joined forces in warning here Wednesday that global warming threatens to hit the world's poorest people hardest and magnify existing injustices.

In launching their report, Friends of the Earth as well as other environmental and development charities said climate change threatened to make international targets on halving world poverty by 2015 unattainable.
Even worse, the report says continued climate change could "even reverse human development achievements," the BBC reports. The report, called "Up in Smoke" and available in .pdf format here, was produced by the Working Group on Climate Change and Development, a coalition of environmental and development groups. It argues that by mid-century,
industrialised countries must cut their greenhouse gas emissions to 60-80% below their 1990 levels "to stop climate change running out of control,"
a figure far beyond the demands of the Kyoto Protocol. It also urges industrialized nations to help developing nations adapt to whatever degree of climate change can't be controlled. It notes that "rich country subsidies to their domestic fossil fuel industries stood at $73 billion per year in the late 1990s" - subsidies which promoted the use of the fossil fuels that drive the human contribution to the climate change threatening to undo any improvements in the life of the world's poor.
Faced by "the intertwined challenges of obscene levels of poverty and a rapidly warming global climate", it says, humanity has no choice.

"There is no either/or approach possible: the world must meet both its commitments."
Assuming it's not already too late to do more than slow the coming disaster.

Footnote: The Bush administration reaffirmed on Friday that it has no intention of signing on to the Kyoto agreement. John Kerry, for his part, proposes to "reopen negotiations" on the agreement - despite that fact that, with the coming approval by Russia, it will go into force as a binding pact on all its signatories.

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