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IT'S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT -- AND WE FEEL FINE

Source: Sunday Independent
By Willie Kealy
Sunday January 10 2010

The struggle to convince the world that the planet was under threat from a number of sources, but chiefly from man-made pollution, went on for a few years at the end of the 20th century, but eventually even the most obtuse accepted the overwhelming scientific evidence. When the phenomenon of climate change was first discovered, it bore the seeds of controversy in itself because the initial predictions were for global cooling rather than global warming. Then, as the planet began to heat up -- lovely summers in the past few decades -- scientists admitted they had been wrong and changed their alert to one for global warming.

The recent spells of cold and wet weather have encouraged the sceptics to rear their ignorant heads again -- that and the publication of some hacked emails between leading British scientists, which suggested they may have massaged certain data to help prove the case for climate change. Passages from these stolen emails were selectively leaked into the public domain and while they seem, on the surface, to contain injudicious comments, they are anything but a slam-dunk case.

In fact, the evidence that climate change is a growing problem for mankind just keeps getting stronger. Sceptics may point to the fact that since 1998, the hottest year on record, temperatures have begun to decline, but research from Judith Lean of the US Naval Research Laboratory and David Rind of Nasa's Institute for Space Studies, which was made public in July, shows that the decline in temperatures has been caused by a cyclical decline in incoming sunlight, and when that has ended, global warming will again become very apparent, and will in fact show a 150 per cent increase over predictions made some years ago by the UN's Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change.

Further fodder for the sceptics came from research carried out at Bristol University, made public in November, which suggested that despite rising carbon emissions, the planet is still able to store a significant amount of greenhouse gases in the oceans and forests.

And a report last August that a £30m supercomputer designed to predict climate change had been named as one of the UK's worst polluters, producing 12,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, didn't help.

But again, in November, the UN World Meteorological Organisation revealed that the concentrations of greenhouse gases, the major cause of global warming, are at their highest level on record and are rising.

It is probably not a coincidence that these negative reports started to appear in the media in the run up to the UN Copenhagen climate-change summit, which was scheduled to finally come up with a global solution to a global problem, after the failure of Kyoto and, before that, Rio de Janeiro, and since that, Bali. If somebody was trying to sabotage Copenhagen, they need not have bothered. The UN proved to be too slow-moving and unwieldy to get a treaty together in time; Obama indicated good intentions but was unable to get the US Senate to pass the necessary legislation in time (the Senate will not now vote on the 'cap and trade' legislation until after the mid-term elections of November 2010!); and the Chinese President, while promising "mandatory national targets for reducing energy intensity and the discharge of major pollutants", proved no more willing or able to reach a solution, just a "political treaty" that nobody signed, and plans for yet another summit, this time in Mexico.

Back in July, Gordon Brown, rather grandiloquently, announced a plan to save the world. He was talking about the economic crisis and his plan, which involved getting a bit heavy with the banks, did not work because there was no support for it worldwide, and particularly in the United States. Undaunted, he was still in superhero mode in mid-October when he announced that there were just 55 days left to "save the world". This time he was talking about the countdown to the Copenhagen summit.

He said: "In every era there are only one or two moments when nations come together and make history. Copenhagen must be such a time. For the planet, there is no plan B." He meant that if a global solution was not agreed in Copenhagen, it would be too late to ever try to do it again. A global plan was not agreed. And now it is too late.

None of this came as a surprise to those who have been watching the inneffectual efforts of our world leaders over recent decades to come to terms with the greatest ever threat to the future of mankind. Scientists have done their best to state the case and their case is, frankly, unanswerable. But that has not stopped the counter-arguments -- not just from the irresponsibly ignorant (Boris Johnson, Jeremy Clarkson and Nigel Lawson are the buffoonish poster boys), but from the wilfully self-interested -- the United States, China and India.

In a nutshell, the argument of these superpowers is as follows: China and India are developing nations and as such did not cause the current crisis, and so are not responsible for solving it. Also, why should there be limits on their development when they are, after all, only seeking to catch up with the West? From the West, and that includes us, the argument is, if they are not going play ball, neither will we.

So we seem to have set our course, and it is one of destruction.

The dramatic consequences of global warming are well known. Greenland and the polar caps will melt; sea levels will rise, whole swathes of inhabitable territory will be flooded; there will be dramatically increased rainfall, but also a huge expansion of desertification.

In our own little backyard, Europe, food shortages will happen -- as Spain, for example, will not be able to maintain its position as a leading producer of vegetables and fruit; as Italy's durum yield will decline, and, in the northern half of the continent, as potatoes and wheat crops will be affected adversely. All of which will make the planet a much more inhospitable place. But while we are waiting in our stoic way for that to happen, what about the here and now?

One of the most vital elements of a global plan to limit the effects of global warming was the payment by the developed countries of vast sums of money to the developing countries to help them fight it. India -- the greatest centre of population in the world if you include Pakistan -- said last year that the amount needed to subsidise the fight in the developing countries, Africa and South America included, would be £120bn a year, estimated to be about half of the West's then GDP. India's demand was met with astonishment in the West. Yes, Hillary Clinton pledged £62bn in Copenhagen -- by 2020. But Bill Clinton backed a much less ambitious plan in Kyoto, only to have the Senate slap it down on his return.

If we in the West ever were feeling generous enough to contribute towards a heavy investment in the future of the planet -- and it is not certain that we ever were -- the current worldwide economic crisis put paid to that. But even without that crisis, there was always a plausible conservative fiscal argument against such a global plan. And since the world's economies have collapsed, new opposition to subsidising the fight against global warming has come from an unexpected direction. That opposition is from the starving poor in some of the world's most backward countries and from agencies that advocate for them.

For some time now, the countries of the West have been following the lead of the Gleneagles G8 summit in 2005. (Well done, Bono; good man, Bob). EU members pledged to reach a collective aid target of 0.56 per cent of GDP by 2010 and 0.7 per cent by 2015 to improve the lives of people in the Third World. In the past year, delivery on that commitment has been watered down because of the economic crisis.

The poor and the downtrodden who make up the half of the world, in which, thankfully, we do not live, are asking how will we in the West subsidise climate-change projects in their countries if we are finding it too hard to meet the commitments we made, just a few short years ago, to keep them alive?

In September, Oxfam estimated that £30bn a year, a more realistic 0.1 per cent of GDP than that suggested by India, is needed to help developing countries cope with the effects of global warming, including droughts and floods. But if that money is given instead of the current aid pledge, rather than in addition to it, Oxfam says, the direct result will be the deaths of four million children, while 75 million fewer children will be likely to attend school. And 8.6 million fewer will have access to treatment for HIV and Aids. Essentially, they say, poor countries would be forced to make the most appalling choices. (While one can't help but be impressed with the speed of the various bank "bailouts" and economic stimulus packages of the past six months, you can't help wondering what percentage of GDP they amount to?)

Copenhagen was also the venue for finding the solution to another global problem. A UN conference on the subject of "food security for all" was held there in November. But again the portents in advance of Copenhagen were not good on this issue. On November 16, Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary General, said that even though the world has more than enough food, just over a billion people still go hungry. (It will surprise some people that 50 million Americans are not able to buy sufficient food -- that's according to the US agriculture department figures for 2008; the figures for 2009 are expected to be even worse!)

Some sceptical aid-agency representatives noted that the leaders of the G8 countries, who had pledged money in L'Aquila and Pittsburgh and Gleneagles, were notable by their absence on this occasion.

Kanyo Nwanze, the Nigerian head of the UN's International Fund for Agricultural Development, said: "If they're not here today, then they're saying: 'Listen, we've made our commitments, now it's up to you.'"

None of the above should come as a shock to us. We are, after all, talking about human nature and the way we live on this planet and have lived for hundreds of years. We have many noble traits, but we are humans, and we are governed as much by self-interest and self-preservation as we are by any higher calling. So, what will happen?

Well, global warming will come upon us. It will be catastrophic, so we need to forget about trying to prevent it and concentrate on how to manage it. It will be worse for those who have always had the worst of the world, but we in the West will suffer too. The food crisis will become critical. Every day 26,000 little children -- cute kids with funny hair, big eyes and beautiful smiles, kids like your own -- will lie down and die, just like they do now, only maybe the number will get bigger. The energy supply will deteriorate too, as the oil runs out -- we still haven't got the global maturity to realise we must embrace nuclear energy and GM foods.

We, the West, will largely leave the poorest of the poor in their misery, but as tensions rise, we will inevitably see conflict. And the poorest of the poor will continue to be exploited by those who claim to be their friends. Their latest "true and trusted friend" is China, whose prime minister, Wen Jiabao, has just pledged $10bn-worth of soft loans to African nations over the next three years; he also plans to cancel some existing debt and is busy buying up as much African farmland as possible in anticipation of greatly increased food demands in China in the near future. John O'Shea of the aid agency, Goal, recently noted that "in Ethiopia roughly four million acres -- an area equivalent to a fifth of the size of Ireland -- has just been made available to the highest bidders. Foreign governments have been invited to use the land to grow food for their own people. Already thousands of companies from China, Saudi Arabia and others are queuing up with greasy cheque books at the ready."

No wonder Josette Sheeran, head of the UN's World Food Programme, said in November that the current world food crisis is not only an economic and humanitarian emergency, but also a question of world peace and security.

But what did you expect? We never put a dent in global hunger, global poverty or global disease up till now. And they are a lot more tangible than global warming.

I guess we just don't do global.

Have a happy new year.

L

- willie kealy

Sunday Independent






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