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Glacial Climate Negotiations

By Nayan Chanda | July 18, 2008

The Gangotri glacier, source of the Ganges
River. Photo by Helene (CC).

Listening to the earth scientists at the Tällberg Forum speaking about the likely calamities caused by global warming, I had the sensation of entering a parallel universe. It is a universe where an adaptive and inventive human race has grown to over six billion people, created bountiful and rich civilizations built on fossil fuels, and has emerged as the most important species to geologically alter the planet. Man-made greenhouse gas has placed the earth in a slow cooker.

In this parallel universe, the phrase "glacial pace" does not mean excruciatingly slow. Not when the vast majority of the world's 160,000 glaciers are in retreat, at an increasingly rapid rate. The Gangotri glacier feeding the Ganges has been retreating since the Industrial Revolution, but its shrinking has accelerated in recent years. In the past 25 years, it has shrunk almost a kilometer. As the Gangotri is the main source of fresh water nourishing the north Indian plains, the decline of this frozen reservoir is the starkest reminder of the danger that global warming poses to the lives of millions of people.

Scientists are alarmed by the gathering speed at which the Arctic sea ice sheet is melting. The displacement of sunlight-reflecting ice by dark, heat-absorbing water, the scientists say, may be setting in motion a feedback loop. NASA's top climate scientist, James Hansen, warns that the breakup of the West Antarctic and Greenland's ice sheets could push the world climate system across a tipping point, where the disintegration of thick ice sheets would be unstoppable.

The melting of the Siberian permafrost will release a huge quantity of methane gas from organic material below, contributing further to the greenhouse effect. While rising ocean levels will threaten the poorest first—from Bangladesh to the Pacific islands—the world's major coastal cities may not be spared. Rising temperatures will bring drought to some parts of the world, and storms and flooding to others.

While scientists are loath to link the hurricanes and massive floods of recent years to global warming, these events do fit the pattern predicted by scientists decades ago. Hansen warned that "if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, CO2 must be reduced from its present 385 ppm [parts per million] to, at most, 350 ppm." Others gathered at the Tällberg Forum in late June spoke of a planetary emergency that called for urgent action to put an end to fossil fuel emissions. The universe that scientists spoke of looks like the one we inhabit, yet it is not the one that politicians seem to be concerned about.

That there is indeed a different universe inhabited by world leaders was brought into view in Washington, D.C. and the recent G8 summit in Rusutsu, Japan. The Bush administration, which only recently and grudgingly accepted the reality of global warming, finally showed what it really believes by disowning its own scientists. It decided to bury the Clean Air Act, which its own Environmental Protection Agency wanted to use to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. It was the wrong tool for the job, the agency's head said in a volte face, as White House officials slammed the aborted proposals as "cumbersome" and "an economic burden." In this universe, the political expediency of kicking the can to the next administration, and not to big business backers, trumps abstract concerns about the planet.

Though much loftier in rhetoric than plain-speaking White House officials, the pronouncement from G8 leaders originated in a universe in which retaining power, maneuvering to stay ahead, and passing the buck matter more than coming to grips with an unprecedented challenge. They spoke of achieving at least a 50 percent reduction in global emissions by 2050, but without specifying from what level or how they intend to achieve that target. They promised to help support the mitigation plans of developing economies through technology, financing, and capacity-building, but the resources for the task mentioned were pitifully inadequate. And that promise of help, too, was predicated upon commitment by major developing countries to cut emissions.

It is business as usual in our known universe where politicians pander to short-term interests rather than ask for sacrifice. But the fact is that there really is one universe where North and South will sink together. As Bo Ekman, founder of the Tällberg Forum, put it, "We have only ourselves with whom to negotiate. We cannot negotiate with melting glaciers."

This article originally appeared in Nayan Chanda's Bound Together column for Businessworld and is republished with the author's kind permission.

Read More: Aid, Diplomacy, Economy, Energy, Environment, Poverty, Science, India, Asia, Global

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