Pacific Rim Nations Wimp Out on Climate Change

By David L. Brown

Leaders of the Pacific Rim have agreed on a statement calling for all nations “to slow, stop and then reverse the growth of global greenhouse gas emissions,” according to an Associated Press report (see the full story here on forbes.com). The statement was hammered out during the first two days of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Sydney, Australia.

According to the news story, the leaders of 21 countries, including major greenhouse gas emitters the United States, Russia, China and Australia…

…adopted modest goals to curb global warming. Thousands of demonstrators rallied to demand stronger action.

Some experts and activists dismissed as ineffective the program adopted by the presidents of the United States, China, Russia and leaders of other Asia-Pacific economies at an annual summit – which did not set goals for cutting countries’ output of polluting gases.

But it sets a precedent because it applies to all of the group’s mix of rich and developing members, and could influence upcoming U.N. negotiations on climate change.

The resolution “charted a new international consensus for the region and the world,” crowed Australian Prime Minister John Howard. But meanwhile 3000 demonstrators constrained behind a wall and police cordons peacefully called for more stringent action. And there does seem to be ample reason to believe the agreement is too little, too late. The AP report includes this:

The program’s centerpiece is a goal to reduce “energy intensity” – the amount of energy needed to produce a dollar of gross domestic product – 25 percent by 2030.

The only other concrete goal was to increase forest cover in the region by at least 50 million acres by 2020 – enough to absorb about 11 percent of the greenhouse gases the world emitted in 2004, the final statement said.

Both are nonbinding targets in keeping with APEC’s voluntary, consensus-based approach.

Environmental groups and some climate change experts said the agreement was weak.

“In practical terms, that will mean almost nothing,” said Frank Jotzo, an Australian National University expert in climate change economics. “It is very unambitious.”

The energy intensity target sets a rate that most economies are naturally meeting as they get richer and shift out of power-intensive manufacturing, he said.

“If the APEC statement is the platform for future action on climate change, then the world is in trouble,” said Catherine Fitzpatrick, a Greenpeace energy campaigner.

Note the phrase “modest goals” to describe the agreement. When action on greenhouse gases is dressed up in faux economic clothing through the use of terms such as “reduce energy intensity,” it creates the impression that solving the climate change problem will be painless, in fact, an opportunity to increase economic growth. No mention is made of the need for anyone to be inconvenienced or to make sacrifices.

Consider that “planting trees” is a wimpy “feel good solution” designed to create a warm and fuzzy effect while appeasing greens and tree huggers who live in an imaginary Disneyesque world and think that trees are more important than people.

As Frank Jotzo points out in the excerpt above, the targets are consistent with what is already being achieved. That deserves an exclamation point, so here it is: ! In other words, the participants in this pact intend to keep right on doing what they have been doing all along while wrapping their dodgy action in pretty gift paper and tying it up with lots of shiny ribbons. Sorry, “leaders,” but that just isn’t going to fly.

And finally there is the phrase “nonbinding targets,” which means that everyone can simply ignore the statement whenever it suits them. All in all, this “resolution” by the Pacific Rim nations is an underwhelming commitment to the future of our planet, a politically obscene abrogation of responsibility, and a disgrace to everyone involved.

Unfortunately, what is needed is the opposite of this limp-wristed approach to protecting the Earth from the possible dire effects of global warming and climate change. As pointed out recently by Sir David King, the chief scientific adviser to the United Kingdom, “wealthy and developing nations should join to approve a global pact by 2009 to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid “catastrophic” climate change.” Sir David addressed a July gathering of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and his remarks were reported in a recent issue of Science magazine.

The picture he paints is far more serious than anything touched upon by the national “leaders” gathered in Sydney. According to the Science article,

…King said that the Earth is already feeling destructive effects of human-caused climate change. But if a rigorous new agreement could be approved in 2 years and implemented by 2012, he said, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases could be stabilized between 450 and 550 parts per million.

“The impacts at 450 ppm will be ‘dangerous,'” King said. But if levels were to approach 550 ppm and beyond, possible on current trends by mid-century, impacts which would become progressively more severe at higher levels include: reduced crop yields in many areas; reduced supplies of fresh water; storms, droughts, and forest fires of increasing intensity; species extinction; lethal heat waves; and coastal flooding that could create tens of millions of refugees.

“We must get global agreement,” he said, “and I’m standing here in Washington [D.C.] saying: ‘We need it in a very short period of time.’ “

Most climate scientists and recent reports on the subject substantially agree that the situation is urgent and that action needs to be taken soon. We desperately need a strong and meaningful response to the problem, not wimpy statements full of vacuous words and emitting a virtual odor more like what one might expect in the neighborhood of a feedlot. Climate tipping points are already being reached and we continue to learn of climate effects that weren’t even dreamed of a few years ago. The Arctic ice cap is melting like an ice cube on a July day, the Greenland Ice Sheet is beginning to show signs of disintegration, patterns of wind and waves are changing, forests are dying, species are becoming extinct, and any number of other warning flags are waving in strong winds of climate change.

The Earth is a complex matrix of interacting forces of nature, and the entire system is reeling under the impact of human produced greenhouse gas and other atrocities which are tearing it apart as we helplessly watch while our political “leaders” dither and wimp out.

Sir David, who has been Britain’s chief scientific adviser since 2000, referred to the fact that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are now above 380 ppm and expected to reach 400 ppm within a decade. He said that “If total greenhouse gases (GHGs) emissions peak in 2020, levels likely can be held below 550 ppm CO2 equivalent.” He added:

“We need a two-track strategy,” he explained. “We must reduce emissions radically to stabilize GHGs in our atmosphere. But we also cannot avoid climate changes that are already in the system from historic emissions. We must therefore, at the same time, adapt to these impacts we cannot avoid, and we have to do so country by country.”

Sir David, who is also director of the Surface Science Research Group at the University of Cambridge Department of Chemistry, expressed guarded optimism for the future. “Leaders in oil, energy, finance, and insurance are joining the effort to mitigate global change,” he said. “The emissions-reduction effort may, in time, stimulate the world economy, he said. With technological advances, improved solar power could meet all of our energy needs.”

Well, if his hopes are to be realized we need to hope that the world’s “leaders” will soon begin to take a more serious approach than was demonstrated at Sydney. I see little hope for that. Talk, talk, talk isn’t going to achieve anything except to provide political cover and delay while business continues as usual. Meantime, the clock is ticking on climate change that could soon reach tipping points that will be disastrous for civilization and perhaps even the survival of the human race.

If the whole thing collapses on our heads, those politicians plan to be comfortably retired and if asked by some future inquirer why they failed to act decisively, they will probably say something like “Who would have thought it?” Well, a lot of very well qualified people ARE thinking it — in fact, doing a lot more than just thinking — and their voices are going largely unheard. It is a travesty and a tragedy.

In the past true leaders sometimes arose when they were needed to face historic challenges. Winston Churchill, for example, was there to step forward to lead the destruction of the evil Nazi empire. Here is what he said about the need for resolve and courage: “Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.” He spoke, of course, of a different kind of challenge but his words could be applied to what is needed today as the gathering storm of climate change looms over the Earth.

And, yes, it was no coincidence that I used the term “gathering storm, for “The Gathering Storm” was the title Churchill gave to the first volume in his epic six volume history of World War II. We find ourselves today in an analogous stage in the looming war against climate change. Compare the way in which Europe dithered and compromised while Hitler prepared for conquest. Neville Chamberlain with his wimpy “brolly” returned from Munich in 1938 to announce “peace in our time.” How like that sad period in history are the dumbed down “resolutions” on climate change such as came from Sydney this week.

Let us hope that somewhere among the ranks of present day humanity another Churchill is waiting to step forward and lead us to that victory over climate disaster “without which there is no survival.”

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