Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Climate Change Requires a Real Movement
Here in the Maldives, it's easy to see why the math of the current climate change debate just doesn't add up -- and why negotiators are going to have to work a lot harder before the Copenhagen climate conference if they're interested in the survival of much of the planet.
The Maldives stretches 800 kilometers across the Indian Ocean, an archipelago of 1,200 tropical islands just a few meters above sea level. It is incomparably beautiful but also highly vulnerable. Sea level rise of even half a meter would make much of it uninhabitable; meanwhile, ocean temperature spikes could destroy the coral reefs that protect these islands from the waves.
This is why no one in the Maldives is applauding the recent pledge of the G-8 nations to try and hold temperature increases to 2 degrees and the atmospheric concentration of CO2 to 450 parts per million. A few years ago, those might have been laudable goals, but new science makes clear they're out of date.
After the rapid Arctic sea ice melt in the summer of 2007, scientists realized that global warming was happening more quickly and on a larger scale than they had anticipated. Wherever they looked -- high-altitude glaciers, hydrological cycles, the spread of mosquitoes -- they found change happening decades ahead of schedule. In January 2008, James Hansen, one of the world's leading climatologists, published a series of papers showing that the actual safe limit for carbon in the atmosphere was at most 350 parts per million. Anything higher than that limit, warns Hansen, could seed "irreversible, catastrophic effects" on a global scale.
We're already above that figure -- the current concentration is 390 ppm and rising. For the Maldives, climate change is no vague or distant irritation but a clear and present danger to our survival. But the Maldives is no special case; simply the canary in the world's coal mine. Neighboring Asian countries like Bangladesh are already suffering from saltwater intrusion as seas rise; Australia and the American southwest are enduring epic drought; forests across western North America are succumbing to pests multiplying in the growing heat. And all of this is with temperature increases of nearly 1 degree -- why on earth would we be aiming for 2 degrees?
Instead we need emergency action all around the world to curb emissions. It won't be easy -- to get back to 350 the world needs to wean itself off coal before 2030, and immediately end the deforestation pouring carbon in the atmosphere. Few politicians really want to tackle something that hard, but it's not impossible. The Maldives has committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2020, using the wind and sun to power the entire nation. If that can happen in a relatively poor, developing country, it can happen anywhere. What we lack is not technology, but political will.
Next week, over one hundred Heads of State will converge on New York for the United Nations' Climate Change Summit. Many world leaders, however, are loath to make more than token emissions reductions. They often cite the apparent unpopularity of carbon cuts back home; as the old adage goes, 'all politics is local.' Mobilizing public opinion is therefore central to finding a climate solution. Only when prevaricating over climate change hurts politicians at the polling booth will they act with the decisiveness necessary to avert catastrophe.
From the Quit India campaign to the civil rights era, history shows us that for radical change we need a real movement. Many of the initiatives in New York next week aim to build such a movement. The United Nations will launch a global advertising campaign calling on nations to seal the climate deal at Copenhagen. The climate change blockbuster, The Age of Stupid, will premiere in Manhattan, with a live feed to hundreds of cinemas across the world. And the science-based 350.org campaign will gear up for its global day of action on October 24th.
On October 24th, the Maldives will hold the largest underwater political demonstration in history -- divers and snorkelers down on the reef with banners and signs, reminding people what's at stake.
The climate is near a tipping point -- when the Arctic suddenly melts and the glaciers disappear, that's a very bad sign. We need our political system to cross a tipping point, too, to move from feel-good statements to actual solutions, cutting emissions quickly enough to meet the demands of science. But politicians are reluctant to act unless the people act first. The events in New York and on October 24th provide ordinary people with the opportunity to make their voices heard and, in doing so, remind politicians who is ultimately in charge.