The recurring issue of climate change

Updated On: Nov 14, 2007

Is the world ready for unity on the issue of climate change?

As the world seeks unity in the fight against climate change, the squabbles seem to be humanity apart. Acclaimed Nobel Peace Prize recipient, the United Nations' top scientific panel on climate change, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is under intensifying scrutiny about some of its key processes. Criticisms emanate from within the IPCC itself who fear the panel's grand report will be badly out of date before it is even printed while others quietly criticize the organization for being too conservative.

The speed at which the IPCC works is also slow and bureaucratic with one new review only every five or six years. Because of this grindingly slow progress, the new report notably fails to take into account a batch of dramatic recent evidence, including the shrinkage of the Arctic ice cap, glacier loss in Greenland, a surge in levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and an apparent slowing of Earth's ability to absorb greenhouse gases.

Because of such omissions, climatic 'tipping points' that could uncontrollably accelerate the damage may be ignored. 'Over the past several years we have realised ... that the speed at which changes can occur - such as ice sheet disintegration and resulting sea level rise - is much faster than IPCC has estimated,' said leading climatologist James Hansen, who heads the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. 'We are now in a situation where the luxury of super-caution and reticence poses a danger for the planet and all its creatures,' he said.

Mr Pep Canadell, executive director of the Global Carbon Project based in Australia, says the panel's caution and rigour had helped create awareness that climate change was a genuine and pressing issue. But it was time for the IPCC to move to a faster and more assertive track, Mr Canadell suggested. 'We are no longer in the business of convincing governments that the problem is real,' he said. 'The issue now is what to do and how fast it needs to be done.'

Another criticism of the IPCC is a tendency to shy away from controversy. Because of the political nature of environmentalism, possible consequences of warming gets watered down in the final version, say some critics. British scientist James Lovelock blames the consensus rule that governs IPCC proceedings, enabling government representatives to meddle with 'forthright and inconvenient forecasts' made by experts. 'The IPCC has a history and a habit of ignoring many of the big issues that hint at policy or policy analysis,' agreed Mr Tom Downing, director of the Oxford Office of the Stockholm Environment Institute and a lead author of the report. He pointed to the draft report to be hammered out in Valencia, saying it had 'barely a page' on vulnerability to climate change and how to cope with it.

The disunity is somewhat disturbing since the panel’s report carries huge political weight and will be a compass for guiding action on climate change for years to come, starting with a crucial UN conference in Bali in December 2007. Some 180 countries are expected to be in Bali to participate in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The report pins the blame for global warming squarely on human activities, and warned that world temperatures are likely to rise between 1.1 and 6.4 deg C by 2100. Drought, floods and more violent storms are likely to become more common, accelerating the risk of hunger, homelessness and water-borne sickness, it predicted. It urged governments to speed up efforts to cut emissions in various sectors - a move that will cost as little as 0.1 per cent of the world's annual gross domestic product - but help avoid many worst-case scenarios.

Despite the criticisms, Dr Rajendra Kumar Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is confident that the upcoming Bali convention on climate change would produce a 'degree of success'. 'What is encouraging about the current situation is the high level of awareness that something needs to be done,' he told The Straits Times in a recent interview. Dr Pachauri said there had been a distinct shift even in the pronouncements of the United States, which over the last six years had been opposed to legally binding caps on greenhouse gas emissions.

'My view is that there really couldn't be a better set of conditions to ensure some degree of success.' He said that the purpose of the convention was to explore 'how there might be compromises that could be structured on the basis of the views of different countries'. Dr Pachauri also said that Asean could take collective steps to deal with natural disasters that have affected the region, achieving more through closer cooperation. 'Asean could do a lot collectively because I believe that you can coordinate your action with your policies across countries. To that extent the policies will be much stronger. There may be some actions that are best taken by a group of countries than a single country.'

He referred to the potential impact of climate change on rising sea levels, highlighted in the three reports issued by IPCC this year, and called for immediate risk assessment. 'What we really need to do is a risk assessment, location by location, on how sea-level rise is going to threaten both life and property' and come up with measures to deal with this. He suggested that some areas might have to be evacuated, while in other areas, it would be helpful to have protective infrastructure or zoning restrictions in terms of where houses could be built. 'Those kinds of regulations may have to be revived,' he said and emphasised that such regulations would have to be created if they did not already exist.

He cautioned: 'The earlier the better, because if we delay these actions...the cost of all these adaptation measures will go up.' The Nobel Prize for IPCC, he said, had 'elevated' climate change to 'a new level' and would act as 'an incentive for people to get involved in research on climate change'. He added that it would also inspire a whole lot of young people to pursue careers dealing with research on climate change. 'That would enrich our knowledge and the contents of this so-called profession.'

On criticisms that the IPPC is prone to making summary conclusions that are poorly supported by analytical work, Dr Pachauri said: 'We take pride in the process we follow, which is totally transparent, which is peer-reviewed at every stage, and we only use material that has been published and peer reviewed in learned journals. 'The IPCC does not invent any research on its own. We stand by the high quality of our reports and we certainly stand by the objectivity of the way we put the reports together.'

Dr Rajendra is probably right on one point. The world’s only superpower, the United States, is indeed experiencing some changes in its view on environmentalism. An Earth transformed by climate change could lead to more climate-related diseases, especially those transmitted by insects and those borne by water supplies, experts said at a meeting of the American Public Health Association.

The United States and other rich countries bear special responsibility because their climate-warming emissions will have a disproportionate impact on poor countries that emit the least and have the fewest resources to deal with public health problems, said Jonathan Patz of the University of Wisconsin. 'There is ... an issue of disproportional vulnerability,' Mr Patz said at a news conference. 'But ... in the industrialized world, because we live in a globalised economy, an increase in disease anywhere in the world really puts everyone at risk.'

'Climate change is one of the most serious public health threats facing our nation,' said Dr Georges Benjamin, the association's executive director. 'Yet few Americans are aware of the very real consequences of climate change on the health of our communities, our families and our children.' 'In the aggregate, we are still the number one country responsible for climate change,' he said, noting that carbon dioxide stays in the environment for about 70 years.

Mr Patz and Dr Benjamin stressed that rising awareness of climate change can be seen as an opportunity to improve public health. To that end, Dr Benjamin announced a six-month plan to develop recommendations to help public health professionals deal with the situation. Public health professionals include doctors, nurses, lawyers and health educators. The recommendations are expected to be released in April, Dr Benjamin said.  (12 November 2007)


UN climate report: already out of date? (Straits Times, 11 November 2007)

Save the earth (Straits Times, 10 November 2007)

The right climate for global warming talks (Straits Times, 10 November 2007)

Climate change is public health issue: US experts (Straits Times, 7 November 2007)