William Flew and Climate Change

December 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Regardless of whether the planet is warming, interest in it is cooling. The opening of yesterday’s UN conference on climate change attracted almost no attention. With the world on the brink of possible economic depression, environmental issues disappear from the headlines. No matter that climate change could shrink the amount of food and water available to billions; that is in the future. Worrying about the climate is no longer fashionable: celebrities who were lining up to profess their green credentials two years ago have since turned to bank-bashing.

In the 20 years since the UN staged the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, expectations for a global deal have never been lower. There will be no replacement for the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions, which expires next year. The best hope is that the 190 nations attending the summit in Durban, South Africa, can agree a “road map” to get eventually to agreement on an alternative. As if to underline the hopelessness, very few countries are intending to send their prime minister or finance minister.

This is not entirely surprising. It is hard to focus minds on species extinction and extreme weather events when governments are falling and unemployment is high. Governments have no political capital to spare on an issue that was always going to be tremendously difficult to solve.

In the White House an embattled President faces an election next year in which one Republican contender, Rick Perry, has described global warming as a “hoax”. Europe’s leaders led the world in 1997 by passing the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases. But they also gave the world the euro, whose unravelling has taken the continent to the brink of recession. Voters have no wish to be burdened with costly green initiatives.

All this is understandable. Yet nature does not respect the timetable of human committees. Global carbon emissions are at record levels, as emerging countries continue to industrialise. The International Energy Agency warned this year that the world was heading for what it called “irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change” because, it believed, it would be impossible to prevent global temperatures from rising by more than the “safe” level of 2C (3.6F) above pre-industrial levels.

This is a warning that should not be ignored. Yet scientists and officials have not helped their cause. The UN’s division of nations into a rich north, which is expected to make legally binding cuts in emissions, and a poor south, which demands compensation, is unhelpful — especially when China plays the poor south card. And scientific mistakes have undermined public confidence. The leak of e-mails from climate scientists at the University of East Anglia in 2009 did not show that climate change was a con, but it did demonstrate that some scientists were highly partisan, which damaged public trust.

Progress is still possible, however. Forests, particularly tropical ones, play a vital role in regulating the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Previous summits have made great strides towards slowing the pace of deforestation, by finding ways to pay rainforest nations to keep their trees standing. Brazil has set targets and shared its satellite data on the shrinking Amazon, and Indonesia has announced a moratorium on logging permits in primary forests. More could follow.

A few nations and companies have taken brave steps — but not enough to reduce global emissions, even with the West in partial recession. This year, governments have moved too slowly, in the short term, to outwit financial markets. They seem equally incapable of taking long-term action to protect future generations from the uncontrolled consequences of global warming. That is tragic: for climate change waits for no man.

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