Climate crisis -- a radical change needed by governments

Radical measures are imperative if we are to secure the habitability of our planet and the conditions that support life as we know it. This will require a major shift in the mind-set of people and the priorities of governments.

By Maurice Strong

Since inception the United Nations has played the leading role in placing and keeping the issue of climate change on the international agenda. It has provided the framework and is the repository of the collective experience of the international Community in addressing it. It is best positioned to build on that experience and provide the universality of participation that is now required. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is to be commended for his assertion of the UN’s leadership as a highest priority.

When it was cited as an emerging issue at the first global environmental Conference in Stockholm in 1972, the world was not listening. At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the heads of more than 172 governments approved the Climate Change Convention and agreed to cooperate in bringing the climate change risks under control. There was further encouragement when the Kyoto Protocol was approved and went into force followed by disappointment at its rejection by the United States as the principal source of accumulated greenhouse gas emissions as well as by Australia. Governments are now positioning themselves for negotiations of the new agreement to take effect following expiration of the Kyoto Protocol in 2012.

There is encouragement in the degree to which the growing scientific evidence and climatic turbulence have engaged the attention and concern of people and governments everywhere. This has been accompanied by a counter movement designed to discredit the science and exaggerate the costs and consequences of preventative action.  As a result, we are now in the early stages of what may be one of the most difficult and divisive controversies ever experienced between and amongst the more industrialized and less developed countries of the world. The commitment of the newly elected government in Australia to ratify Kyoto will breathe new life into the process.

The insights and analyses of those who have contributed to the current dialogue have included many experts with valuable ideas and proposals.  None are more prescient and influential than former U. S. Vice-President, Al Gore.  The award of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize to him and to the UN Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change has re-enforced the linkages between and the credibility of the political and scientific dimensions of this issue and the need for governments and people to give it highest priority.

The urgent actions required to avert the potentially disastrous consequences of climate change and prepare for those already irreversible are attacked as being too radical, costly and unrealistic.  Indeed, recent evidence makes clear that they are not nearly radical enough. After all, the conditions conducive to human life on Earth as we know it have existed for only a small portion of its history and within very narrow parameters on which we are now impacting. Critics argue that we should take no such action until the scientific evidence is more definitive.  Yet governments and business routinely take decisions on the basis of the best evidence available which in most cases is far less compelling than the high degree of scientific consensus that exists as to the dangers of climate change.  Surely for an issue which affects the very prospect of survival of life on earth it would be disastrous and unrealistic to think that we can wait for the post mortem.  

We need a radical shift in the mind-set which dictates our priorities.  We must treat it as a security issue, the most important threat to global security we will ever face.  Nations have always done what they had to do when confronted with threats to their security.  Resources were mobilized and deployed on a scale that was unprecedented during World War II producing major changes in the economies of participants which were not thought feasible during the depression which preceded it.  Today the costs of even more limited wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will consume resources, estimated for the U. S. alone by the Congressional Budget Office at more than 2 trillion dollars, which would go a long way towards reducing the risks of climate change. Yet trillions for war and pennies for peace continue to manifest our distorted priorities.

Paradoxically, the costs of avoiding or delaying the actions required to ensure climate security will be more in the nature of an investment than an expense. Most will occur at the front end of the process of transition to a sustainable development pathway in which a more efficient economy will produce more opportunities and benefits than the current wasteful model.  

Energy is at the heart of this transition. Climate security and energy security are two sides of the same coin: one cannot be achieved without the other. Our profligate use of energy must be brought under control; the transition from the fossil fuels era must be accelerated and their emissions of greenhouse gases substantially reduced in the meantime.  This is feasible, but, of course, it will not be easy.

As a global issue climate security can only be achieved by global cooperation.  All countries must participate, though those which have contributed most to the problem must accept the main responsibility. Yet some seek to shift the onus for reducing their emissions to the rapidly growing emerging economies, notably China and India.  This is disingenuous at best and hypocritical at worst. China’s leadership has made a strong commitment to the transition to sustainability through its own distinctive scientific development model and to produce a harmonious society.  The needs of the poor must take priority over the luxuries and wasteful habits of the rich. Much more attention and resources must be devoted to adjusting to and preparing for changes already occurring, particularly those affecting low-lying small island states and developing regions.

These differences will emerge more controversially as governments begin serious negotiations at the forthcoming UN Conference in Bali on a new agreement on targets to follow expiration of the current phase of the Kyoto Protocol in 2012.  Already there is mounting pressure to move a new agreement outside of the United Nations and establish targets that are voluntary rather than mandatory.  This would be a giant step backwards at a time when the need for accelerated progress and universal action has become more urgent.  All nations must be parties to the agreement establishing this new regime and those that do not participate should be subject to heavy sanctions.  The negotiating process will be exceptionally challenging and will require sophisticated and responsible leadership. The role of the U.S. as the principal source of emissions will be critical. People power in the United States has driven the more forthcoming, though still reluctant, response of the U.S. government to the issue.  A combination of the European Community and China would be well positioned to take a lead in bridging the formidable differences that divide the parties.

Permissible increases in emissions should be derived from a “global cap” based on the evaluation of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the overall limit of the amount of greenhouse gases that can be allowed to build up in the atmosphere to avoid unacceptable risk to the Earth’s climate. Necessary increases within this “global cap” should be allocated to developing countries which would be required to set reductions in the growth of their emissions at levels ratcheted to the performance of more developed countries in reducing theirs. Latest scientific analysis indicates that today’s level of 450 parts per million (p.p.m) of accumulated greenhouse gases is already too high and must be reduced to its pre-industrial level of 280 p.p.m. All emissions would have to be reduced to zero and maintained at that level ---- radically beyond anything now contemplated.

A Climate Security Fund must be established for which an initial target of $1 trillion would be feasible, to be financed by those countries that have contributed most to cumulative emissions.  The Fund would be utilized to assist developing countries to reduce the growth of their emissions and adapt to adverse conditions resulting from already irreversible changes.  One of the main uses of this Fund would be to develop new and improved technologies and make them universally available.

The kind of climate security regime that would result from these measures goes well beyond what is considered realistic by most under today’s conditions.  But such radical measures are imperative if we are to secure the habitability of our planet and the conditions that support life as we know it.  This will require a major shift in the mind-set of people and the priorities of governments.  

Our best hope is the exercise of the power of people to compel their governments to act as is now occurring in the United States and elsewhere. Civil society with its vast networks of organizations and citizen groups has become increasingly sophisticated and professional in using the new communication instruments, particularly the internet, to mobilize people power on particular issues on a massive scale. On no issue is this more important or urgent than climate security. Of course, civil society and non-governmental organizations cannot replace governments. But with concerted action they have the power to drive governments to take action. Indeed people power offers the most hopeful pathway to a more secure and sustainable future for the human community.