Week in review: climate crisis

A new report on climate change concludes that global emissions must peak then decline rapidly within the next five to ten years for the world to have a reasonable chance of avoiding the very worst impacts of climate change. To stabilise climate, global emissions of carbon dioxide and other long-lived greenhouse gases need to reach near-zero well within this century.

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President Barack Obama is proposing an initial target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the United States in an effort to make "a significant contribution to a problem that the US has neglected for too long," the White House announced on Wednesday. "At the international climate summit meeting in Copenhagen next month, Mr Obama will tell the delegates that the United States intends to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 'in the range of' 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 per cent by 2050, officials said, reflecting the targets specified by legislation that passed the House [of Representatives] in June but is stalled in the Senate," The New York Times reported. "Congress has never enacted legislation that includes firm emissions limits or ratified an international global warming agreement with binding targets. "Mr Obama will travel to the United Nations talks to deliver the promise in hopes of spurring significant progress at the summit meeting. He will appear on December 9, near the beginning of the 12-day session, on his way to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on December 10, officials said." In The Times, Ben Webster noted that Mr Obama will not join 65 other heads of state for the crucial last three days of the conference. "The White House feared the world's media would point out the hypocrisy of accepting the Nobel prize while refusing to attend a summit taking place just a hop across the Skagerrak sea. "But the compromise planned by Obama's spin doctors is the worst possible outcome: by turning up briefly on the third day of the two-week conference he is sending a message that there is no point in other leaders being there for the denouement. "He is snubbing the rest of the world in order to suit his own travel diary. It is also a blatant attempt to hog the limelight: with no other world leaders present all eyes will be on the US president." On Tuesday, in anticipation of the December climate change conference, a new report was released in the hope of instilling a stronger sense of urgency among the world's political leaders. The Copenhagen Diagnosis, a synthesis of the most policy-relevant climate science published since the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was drafted, concludes that the rate of climate change, far from having been exaggerated in earlier assessments has consistently been underestimated. For instance, in the Arctic, the area of summer sea-ice melt during 2007-2009 was about 40 per cent greater than the average 2007 projection. The report concludes that global emissions must peak then decline rapidly within the next five to ten years for the world to have a reasonable chance of avoiding the very worst impacts of climate change. To stabilise climate, global emissions of carbon dioxide and other long-lived greenhouse gases need to reach near-zero well within this century, the report states. The Associated Press looked at some of the major changes that have occurred since the Kyoto protocol on climate change was initially adopted over a decade ago. "In 1997, global warming was an issue for climate scientists, environmentalists and policy wonks. Now biologists, lawyers, economists, engineers, insurance analysts, risk managers, disaster professionals, commodity traders, nutritionists, ethicists and even psychologists are working on global warming. "'We've come from a time in 1997 where this was some abstract problem working its way around scientific circles to now when the problem is in everyone's face,' said Andrew Weaver, a University of Victoria climate scientist. "The changes in the last 12 years that have the scientists most alarmed are happening in the Arctic with melting summer sea ice and around the world with the loss of key land-based ice masses. It's all happening far faster than predicted. "Back in 1997 'nobody in their wildest expectations,' would have forecast the dramatic sudden loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic that started about five years ago, Weaver said. From 1993 to 1997, sea ice would shrink on average in the summer to about 2.7 million square miles. The average for the last five years is less than 2 million square miles. What's been lost is the size of Alaska [about the same size as Iran]." The Financial Times reported that an influential group of investors with a combined $13,000bn (Dh 47,800bn) in assets under management, have demanded a strong deal at Copenhagen. The signatories included major investors such as HSBC, Hermes, ING Group, Société Général, Swiss Re, Allianz Global Investors and numerous US public sector pension funds. "Their argument is that a strong agreement will unlock many billions of potential investment. Lord Stern, former World Bank chief economist and author of the influential 2006 review of the economics of climate change, emphasised this potential to investors: 'Building a low-carbon economy creates opportunities for investment in new technologies that promise to transform our society in the same way as the introduction of electricity or railways did in the past.' "A group of businesses including household names such as Starbucks, Yahoo, PepsiCo, Adidas, Nestlé, the Bank of Beijing, Shanghai Electric, Cathay Pacific, Rusal and Nippon Insurance signed a 'Copenhagen Communiqué' to Mr Ban ahead of the conference. "Calling for deep emissions cuts, they wrote: 'These are difficult and challenging times for the international business community, and a poor outcome from Copenhagen will only make them more so by creating uncertainty and undermining confidence. Economic development will not be sustained in the longer term unless the climate is stabilised.'" Meanwhile, in The Guardian, Paul Kingsnorth wrote: "The mainstream narrative on climate change decrees that if we can get the urgent political agreements in place, and produce enough turbines and electric cars quickly enough, we can 'stabilise the climate' and carry on as before. It is a narrative built on an outdated faith in our reach and our technology, and it is rubbing up hard against the buffers of ecological reality. "We have pushed back the forests, denuded the oceans, exhausted the soil, tipped other species into extinction, expanded our population to the point where we can barely feed ourselves, and changed the chemical composition of the atmosphere. There is no quick fix for this, and possibly no fix at all. Our systems are not designed for it. An economy predicated on constant growth cannot be the engine of a change that urgently demands less of it. Democracies predicated on giving their consumer citizens what they want are unable to tell them what they cannot have. And the psychology of a culture that reacts in horror to any pothole on the road to utopia is not well placed to take a different path. "Which is not to say that the End Times are here. One of the other problems with the climate change narrative is that it offers only two futures: Saving the World, or Apocalypse Now. We will probably get neither. More realistic is that we will experience what most previous human societies experienced - a painful decline after a period of over-expansion."