November 24, 2012
By Dr. Olav Orheim
At the end of this month (November 27) climate change experts and government officials will once again be packing their bags and, armed with the latest, no doubt alarming, statistics about a warming planet, be heading off for yet another round of global climate talks, this time in Doha, Qatar. While no one is holding their breath about any major breakthrough on this highly contentious issue, there might – just might – be reason to believe that at last, progress can be made.
The world’s two biggest CO2 emitters, China and the U.S., having played out their own very different political dramas over recent weeks, are placing climate and the environment firmly on the agenda. Within China, there is a growing groundswell of public anger about the general state of the environment and the frequency of environment related scandals – from the emergence of “cancer villages” to poisoned water supplies to contaminated food.
At the recent Communist Party Congress in Beijing – a once in a decade event signaling a leadership change – outgoing party chief Hu Jintao devoted an unprecedented entire section of his speech to what he called “environmental civilization.” China, said Hu, was facing “tightening resource constraints, rampant pollution and worsening environmental degradation.”
Hu pledged that in future the country would take what he described as a holistic approach to controlling and preventing pollution. How quickly and effectively Beijing acts on these ideas – and whether it makes moves to implement them on a global and not just national level – remains to be seen. But make no mistake, China’s leaders realize they ignore the environment at their peril.
The environmental message has also been heard loud and clear in Washington. Global warming got precious little play in the run up to the presidential election; for the first time in many years, the environment didn’t feature in any of the debates between the candidates. Mitt Romney only mentioned climate change in a throwaway, joke line at the – climate delayed – Republican Convention.
But then along came Hurricane Sandy. Whether or not Sandy – responsible for the deaths of more than a 100 and causing billions of dollars worth of damage in the U.S. alone – was a game changer in favour of President Obama in the last days of a bitterly fought campaign, will probably be argued over by the political pundits for months and years to come. Whether or not Sandy was caused by global warming will probably never be known, but what is clear is that warming oceans are making such storms ever more likely.
The effect Sandy clearly had – by striking when and where it did – was to bring the whole issue of climate very much back onto the public and political agenda in the U.S. and beyond. The sight of President Obama and the Republican governor of hard-hit New Jersey making very public common cause to bring relief offered the slightest hope that Washington gridlock could actually be overcome. Cyclones in the Bay of Bengal that kill hundreds and result in the displacement of thousands often never make it on to the global media networks. Ditto typhoons in the Philippines and other countries. Sandy struck in what is one of the world’s media capitals: there was saturation coverage, beamed not only all over the U.S. but round the world.
Capitol Hill insiders say the Obama White House made a strategic decision back in 2009 to downplay climate change – it was just not seen as a vote winning issue. Instead the emphasis was placed on creating ‘green’ jobs and growing the green economy. Sandy has recalibrated the whole debate.
In his election victory speech, President Obama put climate change right up there, linking it with other major issues facing his new administration. “We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet” said the President.
A renewed commitment on the environment by the leaders of the world’s most powerful economies comes not a moment too soon. For too long, particularly in the U.S., the climate change skeptics have been having their way.
In late 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international body which gathers together the work of thousands of scientists around the world, will begin issuing its latest, voluminous, global assessment report. It’s the fifth such report since 1990 and all indications are it will make grim reading with droughts, heat waves, floods and storms all forecast to be on the increase.
Earlier this month UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon made a renewed plea for a global deal to rein in fossil fuel emissions.
“..Extreme weather due to climate change is the new normal,” said the UN chief. “This may be an uncomfortable truth but it is one we ignore at our peril. The world’s best scientists have been sounding the alarm for many years. There can be no looking away, no persisting with business as usual…”
We have been warned. Progress at the next round of climate change talks in Doha is vital.
Dr. Olav Orheim, a Norwegian glaciologist, climatologist and polar expert, is chair of the Board of Directors of GRID-Arendal, which is a Norwegian non-profit environmental foundation and collaborating centre of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) committed to bridging the communications divide between science and policy.
Contact: Thor-Jürgen Greve Løberg, Head of Communications (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This article was first published on op-ed page of The Independent's web site.