Catastrophic climate change: myth or reality?

"Climate change, and how we address it, will define us, our era and ultimately the global legacy we leave for future generations."

— U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

I am not a scientist or a climatologist, but I have thought a lot about this highly complex, controversial and earth-shaking topic of climate change. What is it? What has global society done about it? And where are we headed in our quest for solutions?

First some facts

Over the past 40 years, the search for causes, impacts and remedies for climate change has accelerated at local, national and global levels. Why?

These are some of the facts — documented and undeniable — a cause for alarm to scientists and public at large:

  • Global warming is increasing: 11 of the past 12 years rank among the warmest years in surface temperature since 1850.
  • Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: its concentration has increased from a pre-industrial value of 278 parts per million to 379 ppm in 2005.
  • Sea level is rising: the observed sea level increase from the 19th to 20th century is estimated at 0.17 meters, far higher than the previous 2000 years.
  • Snow cover in most regions is decreasing, about 7 percent in the northern hemisphere since 1900. Rivers that freeze do so some 5.8 days later and their ice breaks up 6.5 days earlier than a century ago.
  • Glaciers are melting in both hemispheres, contributing to a sea level increase of 0.77 millimeters a year between 1993 and 2003.
  • Arctic warming: average Arctic temperatures increased at almost twice the global average rate in the past 100 years and annual average Arctic sea ice shrunk by 2.7 percent per decade.
  • Extreme weather events like floods and storm surges are hugely harmful to small islands and mega-deltas in Asia and Africa.

Global action

Action to combat climate change continues at the global level. Of note are:

  • The U.N.-sponsored 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment.
  • The 1992 U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was ratified by 191 countries.
  • The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which extended the UNFCC and established legally binding emissions targets for industrialized countries.
  • The 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which engaged thousands of scientists and won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for its ground-breaking work (shared with Al Gore for raising global awareness of the threat posed by global warming).
  • The July 2009 G-8 Summit and Major Economies Forum on energy and climate, attended by 17 developed and developing nations in L'Aquila, Italy which pledged "to limit the average increase in global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6° F) above preindustrial levels" by 2050 with the promise of hammering out specific goals for slashing heat-trapping gases by that date.

Where do we go from here?

Much stock had been placed in a long-planned global conference in December 2009 in Copenhagen to "seal the deal" — a major breakthrough agreement on climate change — but as of the date of writing this, humankind's hopes are fast melting away like the glaciers. The U.N. has admitted as such. Negotiations between developing and industrialized nations have reached an impasse. Political will is lacking among major actors.

Democrats in the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee pushed through a climate change bill on Nov. 5 without debate or participation by Republicans. The chances of progress this year on a climate bill in Congress are nil. Now the target date is 2010. Two factors are key to achieving a meaningful deal: acceptance of strict carbon emission reduction targets by 2020 by industrialized nations, and a commitment to specific short- and long-term assistance — both technological and financial — to developing nations to adapt to climate change. The European Union estimates that up to $150 billion a year may be needed by 2020 to combat climate change in developing nations.

What can you and I do?

If you believe climate change is real and you wish to do something about it, you can do four things: conserve energy use, recycle whenever and wherever possible, inform friends and neighbors, and urge your elected representatives to support a robust legislation that battles climate change.

Russy D. Sumariwalla is president of United Nations Association of the USA, Southern Oregon Chapter. He is former president and CEO of United Way International (now part of United Way Worldwide) and currently president of Global Philanthropy and Nonprofits. He lives with his wife, Anita, in Medford and is active with community organizations, including the Jackson County United Way.

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