Facing down Armageddon: our environment at a crossroads.

Author:Strong, Maurice

BEIJING -- The modern era has seen the creation of enormous wealth and the broad advance of human development. Put simply, the majority of the world's people are now enjoying unprecedented levels of prosperity and opportunity. But the unexpected speed and severity of the global financial crisis and collapse of some of the most powerful financial institutions have also precipitated a steep decline of the world economy-making this one of the worst of times. It has shaken the foundations of our civilization, the wealthiest ever, and given the lie to its promise of even greater wealth ahead.

Still, the accelerating damage to the Earth's natural capital will have even more devastating consequences for the human future than the current financial and economic crises. The economic and human costs of climate change to the global economy already amount to an estimated $125 billion per year and the loss of 300,000 lives, according to a recent study by the Global Humanitarian Forum headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. And, as noted in a recent report by the World Resources Institute, we face the increased extinction of species, the waning of fish stocks, the ominous decline in the quality and availability of water for human consumption, the continued degradation of forests and biological resources, the loss of productive soil, worsening air pollution, and a severely contaminated food chain--all threatening the very nature and sustainability of life on Earth. Together, they represent the single greatest threat to human security. Some, however, still contend we can only deal with the risks of climate change and repair damage from environmental degradation after we fix the global economy. This is the height of folly. Waiting would only intensify the imminent threats to our civilization.

Climate change is rooted in the same basic condition that has produced the global financial and economic crises--the unsustainable nature of our existing economic system. The rapid and unexpected meltdown across the planet demonstrates dramatically the vulnerability of a system that cannot continue on the pathway that led to its collapse. This dictates that we must manage these crises of multiple origins on a systemic, integrated basis, rather than as separate and often competing issues. Only thus can we transform crisis into opportunity, and rebuild our civilization in a manner that will ensure the survival and sustainability of life on our planet. The United Nations has played a leading role in the development of awareness of environmental degradation and the international response to it. The principles agreed to at the Stockholm Conference in 1972, and at the Earth Summit in 1992, have produced international agreements the United Nations has negotiated and serviced, which have laid the foundations of today's global environmental initiatives.

The Global Effort

When the Stockholm Conference cited the risks of climate change, they were seen only as distant problems. But as environmental research began better to understand and quantify the accelerating risks of global warming, the continuing efforts of the United Nations played a significant role in bringing climate change to the top of the global agenda. The Convention on Climate Change that emerged from the Earth Summit in 1992 was followed by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which set targets for more developed countries to reduce their emissions. Leading scientists, operating through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) established by the United Nations and under the leadership of the eminent Dr. R. K. Pachauri, as well as the persuasive influence of former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, supported this work. All these efforts have built a foundation for much more concerted action on the part Of governments and much greater public awareness and support. Thankfully, the United States under the Obama administration is now coming into line with the global consensus, after the Bush administration repudiated Kyoto and refused to accept targets for reduction of its emissions.

Despite these measures, however, greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase, and the scientific evidence of the consequences of accelerating risks are now beyond doubt. This underscores the immense importance of the negotiations now underway in preparation for December's UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, which is designed to extend and amend the Kyoto Protocol beyond its expiration in 2012. It is imperative that Copenhagen produce a new and far more rigorous agreement--a commitment by all countries to ensure reduction of global emissions to levels which can promise climate security.

This is one of the most important and difficult international agreements ever attempted. Initial negotiations demonstrate the deep differences which divide the signatories, particularly over emissions reduction targets that the more industrialized countries had accepted under the Kyoto Protocol. (Developing countries, though parties to the Protocol, were not required to accept targets).

Since Kyoto, the situation has changed more rapidly than expected, driven by the high levels of economic growth in leading developing countries, notably China and India. These countries are now the main source of increases in global emissions and...

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