Editor's blog: Eleven days to save the world

Posted: 21 December 2009

As climate negotiations in Copenhagen get under way - talks that could save or damn human life on the planet - the prospect of a political pact leading the way to a binding climate treaty later in 2010 seems, just possibly, within reach.

There are many, like Lloyd Timberlake, writing in this website, who question whether any such deal can be meaningful if it does not bridge the underlying 'trust gap' between north and south. But the hope must be that this meeting can begin to take our civilisation onto a sustainable trajectory.

Potential impact of sea-level rise on Bangladesh
Potential impact of sea-level rise on Bangladesh
Potential impact of sea-level rise on Bangladesh. Bangladesh, one of the world's poorest nations is also the country most vulnerable to sea-level rise. The population is already severely affected by storm surges. Catastrophic events in the past have caused damage up to 100 km inland.
The price of failure could not be higher, not least in terms of food security. As Lester Brown points out, it will take only a three-foot rise in sea levels to cover half the rice land in Bangladesh and submerge a third of the rice-rich Mekong delta. Each one-degree of rise in world temperature would lead to a 10 per cent drop in wheat and rice yields. And perhaps, most frightening, the melting of the large glaciers on the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau could devastate irrigated wheat and rice harvests in India and China, creating "the most massive threat to food security the world has ever seen." (See Food security is the fundamental climate issue.)

Echoing these fears UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon told the world food conference that "the livelihoods and survival of up to a billion people throughout Asia," was at stake, while farmers in Africa who depend mostly on rain, could see harvests drop by 50 per cent by 2020, as temperature rises.. All this at a time when the human population (very largely in developing countries) is on course to grow by a further 2.5 billion by 2050, and forecast food demand in Asia is set to grow by 50 per cent in the same short period.

Adding to the pressure on negotiators is the insistent voice of science, pointing to the ever-growing evidence that the climate is indeed changing, with all manner of dangers. Janet Larsen reports, for instance, on how the area of the world subject to very dry conditions that can lead to wildfires has grown from 15 to 30 per cent since 1970. We rely on trees to soak up greenhouse gases and store carbon, but unless we can stabilize climate quickly, she says, we may not be able to avert "an inferno on earth". (See Spreading wildfires could bring 'an inferno on earth'.)

Australian wildfire
Australian wildfire
Image from space showing Australia's deadliest wildfires on 'Black Saturday' which scorched more than 3,900 kmĀ² of the state of Victoria in Febraury 2009. Satellites not only detect smoke billowing from major fires but also the burn scars left in their wake. In this image, burned areas from the Kinglake Complex, Bunyip and Wilsons Promontory National Park fires are all visible in black. Photo credit: European Space Agency
Elsewhere scientists taking ocean sediments from 20 million years ago have found evidence that the last time carbon concentrations in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million, there was no ice cap on Antarctica and sea levels were 25-40m higher." The implication is that the best hope of limiting emissions to 450ppm may not be enough to slow the melting process, and should certainly not be exceeded. (See Ocean sediments yield a warning message from the past.)

As Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme pointed out last week, "we only have to look at the Arctic [which has already seen an increase of 5 degrees in surface temperatures over the past century] to know that the tipping point for Arctic peoples may be coming faster than previously presumed. Copenhagen needs a political tipping point of equal magnitude."

On the positive side, experts point to increasing evidence that wind, water and solar technologies can provide all the world's energy, eliminating all fossil fuels, as the Scientific American spelt out last month. (See A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables.) That will need to be accompanied by a similar revolution in our care for the natural world and a social revolution in our investment in the poor of the developing world - and in women, in particular - as spelt out by the UN Population Fund. in its 2009 State of the World Population Report. (See Women must be enrolled in climate campaign, says UN.)

In the face of such a massive challenge, the leaders of some 100 countries, now including President Obama, have signed up to join the Copenhagen talks. The US president's decision to join the final stages is particularly good news, since without his commitment to a brave settlement this global gathering would certainly have failed. The hope must be that the rich world's targets for reducing polluting gases and for funding green technologies in the poor world - will be sufficient to bring China and the rest the world on board. It is hope, mixed with a lot of scepticism and fear.

John Rowley

P.S. Bob Dylan's performance of A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall is the unofficial theme song for the conference at Copenhagen. It forms part of a book and exhibition, based on the words of Dylan's famous song with related pictures by award-winning photographer Mark Edwards. The exhibition has already been seen by 12 million people in 60 venues around the world. The exhibition, which opened in Copenhagen on December 6, is an unforgettable exploration of the state of our planet and its people. A new Hard Rain DVD and commentary by Lloyd Timberlake will also be launched at Copenhagen.

Planet 21 has teamed up with the Hard Rain Project to provide a running News Feed and news archive on people and the planet on the Hard Rain Website.