After years of negotiation and lobbying, governments are finally taking Climate Change seriously and will work together to tackle it.
In December 2015, at the UN summit in Paris, all countries agreed to limit the release into the atmosphere of carbon-dioxide and other greenhouse gasses that are believed to be causing Climate Change. Small island nations played a big part in helping make that agreement happen.
For years now, it has become increasingly apparent that things were going seriously wrong. We have rising global temperatures and sea levels; melting and receding polar icecaps and more frequent extreme weather events like devastating hurricanes, cyclones, droughts and floods. Some of these freak events are even affecting countries that up till now had been immune.
But are the problems really global, serious, manmade and set to worsen? To move forward collectively governments had first to be convinced on these four counts.
What is the problem?
Most climate scientists now consider that what we are experiencing is not a natural phenomenon but a consequence of human activity. It is due they believe to the excessive emission of carbon-dioxide and other greenhouse gasses that is upsetting the atmosphere’s delicate chemical balance.
This sets in train a series of complex consequences including trapping heat and making the oceans more acidic, which has negative implications for marine and ultimately terrestrial life.
Over the last sixty years, global productive activity has grown tenfold, with considerable expansion in manufacturing, industrialised agriculture and transportation. The reason why this growth has been problematic is because it relied heavily on energy generated from burning fossil fuels which releases greenhouse gases.
A worrying effect is the rise in average global temperatures which, during 2015, reached one degree centigrade (1°C) higher than in pre-industrial time.
Scientists calculate that if current trends in releasing these harmful gases continue, Climate Change will accelerate. They predict that by the end of this century average temperatures could be 4°C higher than they were in pre-industrial times.
Such a dramatic temperature rise could take us into unknown territory of unprecedented heatwaves, droughts, floods and rising sea levels that are likely to be catastrophic and irreversible. This would be a disaster for our planet making some parts of the world unfit for human habitation and in many others, life as we know it, would no longer be viable.
This could seem alarmist and unduly pessimistic to many in developed countries where the direct changes in climate patterns are not yet very noticeable and do not significantly affect everyday life. There the issue can seem remote and be viewed as somebody else’s problem.
Understanding Climate Change denial
Despite the evidence, some still question the reality of Climate Change or that human activity is the cause.
When denial is blind to facts and reality, it is just plainly ignorant. Denail can also be prompted by narrow self-interest.
The wealth and consumption levels in advanced industrial countries and the economic growth in developing countries rely heavily on the use of energy derived from fossil fuels, and a production model that does not adequately factor in environmental costs. For instance, destroying forests (often by burning) can make cheap land available. But the forest absorbed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere whilst the ranch or plantation that replaces it, probably would be a net emitter of greenhouse gases.
This environmental cost is real, even if the ranch or the plantation owners choose to ignore it. If it were expressed in monetary terms and charged to the business, the latter’s costs would increase and profits reduced. This is just one example, but similar perverse subsidisation can apply in many other areas where businesses are able to escape meeting some or let alone all environmental costs. These costs are left to be borne by the wider society.
As the scientific evidence that human activity is driving Climate Change became more compelling, acceptance of the need for action was growing. Ever since the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, the UN has been organising Conferences of the Parties (COP). The 21st, COP21, was held in Paris in November/December 2015 and was touted as, “make or break”, for tackling Climate Change. The hope was to avert the disaster that would result if current trends in greenhouse gas emissions continued.
The UN was targeting an increase of 2°C. However, would the industrialised countries, the petroleum exporters and major developing countries like China, India, Brazil and others accept the cost and sacrifIce that this level would entail?
True there was consensus that Climate Change was due to human activity and posed a serious threat which needed global attention. But countries were playing the blame game and focussing on who should pay.
Western industrialised countries were calling for everyone to cut back but developing countries felt that rich countries had contributed most to the problems and should therefore be the ones to cut back their emissions and foot more of the bill.
Progress thought was being made elsewhere. NGO’s had been lobbying hard and some politicians adopted Climate Change as a, “cause célèbre”. Whilst trekking last September in the Alaskan wilderness with Bear Grylls, President Obama revealed how he had intervened directly with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Climate Change .
Small Islands bear the brunt of Climate Change
Small Islands’ have long been concerned about Climate Change, though with their tiny populations and minimal productive activity, their greenhouse gas emissions and contribution to Climate Change are insubstantial. But, they bear the brunt of its consequences.
Ordinary life is being blighted by erratic rainfall patterns, the emergence of new pests and diseases and creeping sea level rise. There is also the increased threat of cataclysmic weather events; devastating droughts; hurricanes; cyclones and floods that can lay waste the entire country and its economy. The very existence of low lying islands like Kiribati and Tuvalu is threatened as sea levels rise and the country risks disappearing altogether under the waves.
Being starkly confronted with the reality of Climate Change, Small Islands, more than many other countries, recognise how critical and immediate the danger is. They fear that if the current temperature increase of just 1°C is already causing so much damage, then the impact of 2°C would be catastrophic. For them the maximum that they could sustain is 1.5°C.
At the start of the Paris conference the prospects of a breakthrough seemed remote. On the first day President Hollande exhorted the delegates with this cri de coeur, “It is rare, in life, to have the opportunity to change the world; you have that opportunity to change the world. Seize it, for the survival of our planet, mankind, and life itself.”
After almost two weeks of haggling and negotiation a deal was finally reached aiming to hold global average temperature rise to, “well below 2°C”, and, “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”. The deal contains 186 country pledges to stop the growth of greenhouse gas emissions.
Those pledges, in isolation, will miss the 1.5°C target, but the agreement also calls for countries to renew their pledges every five years. The hope is that by the second half of this century the net emissions of greenhouse gases would be zero.
Why the breakthrough?
Skilful and creative negotiation and consensus building was led by the French, and their Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius who set up a group of 20 Ministers as a Facilitators’ team. The Small Island representative on the team was James Fletcher, St Lucia’s Minister for Sustainable Development. He, along with Tine Sundtoft, Norway’s, Minister of Climate and Environment, was responsible for the theme of “Ambition”.
Small Islands are not normally powerful players in international negotiations, but at the Paris Summit, they were vocal and well-coordinated with other campaigners. Their effective and concerted campaign deserves credit for its contribution to securing the eventual outcome.
The Canary’s warning
In the dim distant past, canaries were taken down the mines since they would collapse as soon as the air began getting poisonous. This way, the bird gave early-warning to the miners of the impending danger facing them. Small Islands, which are fragile and vulnerable are more quickly affected by climatic changes. They can therefore be likened to the canary in the mine.
At COP21 the rest of the world listened to, “the canary’s cry for help”, recognising its distress as foreshadowing the great danger that was looming.
This probably is one of the key underlying reasons why the elusive breakthrough eventually happened. For the first time, powerful leaders took note of the plight of little islands understanding what it signalled for their own countries’ future and that of the rest of the world.
Significance of the Paris deal
The agreement reached at COP21 is an important first step for slowing and hopefully eventually reversing the destructive path along which the world is headed. However, on its own it has no impact; it is just noble and well-meaning words.
Change will require more than obligations and commitments. A new mind-set and attitudes and concrete measures are the ingredients to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now and in the future.
This will demand our collective recognition and acceptance of the value of the environment and our commitment to conserve rather than squander, waste and abuse the precious and finite environmental resources entrusted to our generation. Every one of us has a contribution to make. Success will not be easy, and could sometimes mean that we have to reduce consumption and expectations of economic growth.
Maybe history books of the future will cite COP21 in 2015 as the occasion when the world heeded the canary, finally coming to its senses and beginning to apply the brakes on Climate Change. If so, history will also tell of the debt of gratitude owed to Small Islands for their clear and forceful warning.