Copenhagen Climate Conference

Blogactiv wants to help its readers to better understand the world. Climate change is one of the big challenges of this century and it is a complex issue. It is therefore appropriate to give an overview. Eberhard Rhein, who regularly writes on energy and climate, had lectured on the subject in Malta earlier this spring. He has revised his text for publication by and you will therefore be able to read the comprehensive text of his lectures in the coming weeks.

Climate Change constitutes the major challenge for humanity in the 21st century and beyond.

It will not go away. Unless humanity resolves to act rapidly and decisively, it is bound to radically deteriorate living conditions for the vast majority of human beings on the planet and lead to the progressive annihilation of large swaths of human civilisation.

Climate change has started. It accelerates from year to year. Its effects have become distinctly visible, though the process is at its beginning. As time goes on, it will impossible for humanity to effectively control the process. We may be closer to that point than most people on earth believe. Humanity will be at the mercy of forces that will prove stronger than man-made technology.

The melting of the glaciers in the Alps, Andeans and Himalaya, which is more and more likely to happen in the next decades, and, of course, of the Greenland ice in the more distant future are likely to be such tipping points.

The approaching catastrophe is in stark contrast to the amount of attention that humanity has paid to the issue. Most human beings continue to live and act as if climate change did not exist. As much as two thirds of humanity may be completely unaware of what is happening, and one third is more or less ignoring it. Worse, policy makers are almost exclusively concerned about short term challenges.

This is normal. Climate change has entered the dictionaries less than 20 years ago. The phenomenon has existed earlier, but it was too diffuse to be registered. Scientists have only started exploring it seriously from the 1990s onward. And it has taken another decade and visibility before it entered the public scene.

Climate change will affect living conditions everywhere on earth, mostly to the worse.

  • Droughts will become more frequent, especially in the Indian sub-continent, China, Australia and the Mediterranean region. Deserts will expand everywhere. This is bound to affect our capacity to adequately feed humanity. We are likely become more often confronted with famines, which we had hoped to eliminate.
  • Droughts may affect the tropical zones and lead to the progressive destruction of tropical forests, which have served as an essential C02 storage and helped to stabilise global climate for hundreds of thousands of years.
  • The sea level will rise as a consequence of melting glaciers and rising water temperatures. Climatologists project a rise of at least 50 cm by 2100. But a more rapid increase of global warming in recent years raises fears about an even higher rise. If that were to happen many coastal regions and major metropolitan areas across the earth will be submerged and expel hundreds of million people, 10 percent of the global population from their homes.
  • The Siberian and Canadian tundra will melt, causing a massive release of methane. This is bound to further accelerate the speed of climate change.
  • The Oceans may cease to absorb additional volumes of C02. The first signs of this trend have been registered in south-polar waters. Like the destruction of tropical forests and the tundra this is bound to accelerate global warming because a higher share of emissions will have to be stored in the atmosphere.

Looking beyond the 21st century, the oceans may turn into dead seas with no traces of life.

  • Climate change will further reduce the number of species on earth because it will expose many plants and animals to unusual stress, force them to leave their traditional biotopes or deprive them of their food.
  • Last not least, climate change will create more conflicts about land and water resources. It might well become the major source of conflicts in the course of the 21st century. Climate policy is therefore also security policy. If we fail on climate we shall fail on peace!

It is therefore indispensable for every citizen on earth to understand what is going on with our climate. Our children’s future depends on whether humanity will succeed in preventing the worst from happening.

We have already passed the stage of reverting to “normal” climate conditions as they have prevailed until the middle of the 20th century.

We have resigned to living with global temperature that will be two centigrade above temperatures that have prevailed throughout human history. Humanity can do no more than limit the damage by mitigating an inevitable rise of temperatures of the air and the oceans.

The EU has put the limit of what is acceptable at 2° increase, to an average temperature on the planet of 17°, by the end of the century.

But scientists are afraid that it will no longer be possible to contain the rise of global temperatures within this margin. The last projection of a rise between 1-6° by 2100 may need to be reviewed in the light of the faster rate of green house gas emissions since the beginning of the century (+ 3.5 percent p.a., compared with 1 percent during the 1990s!).

It is imperative for future diplomats to have a thorough grasp about climate change and its impact on different parts of earth. They are bound to be exposed to it sooner rather than later in their careers.

International climate diplomacy is about to replace trade and economic diplomacy in importance. We might face rising numbers of trade disputes, due to climate-related issues like carbon leakage. Who is still in favour of negotiating future free trade agreements when the main concern may become reducing transport costs and minimising the movement of goods from one corner of the planet to the other!

No future diplomat can therefore afford to ignore climate change and policy.

The subject is of extreme complexity.

  • We have to learn how to think and act in very long-term time spans, something human beings never had to do. Human beings are psychologically disposed to prefer the presence to the future. That is why they are prepared to pay interest on a loan. The farther we look into the future, the more uncertain we become on what may happen. Human beings are therefore extremely incredulous on what might happen in 2050! They are not even interested because most of them will long be dead. This makes it almost impossible, even for wise politicians, to impose the drastic measures required!
  • We have to reach global solutions, no individual country being capable to sufficiently influence global climate by national policies. Not even China and USA!
  • We have to impose drastic changes on business and consumer behaviour.
  • We cannot shy away from restraining personal freedom and the use of property.
  • We have to revolutionise existing energy systems, propagate and invent low-carbon technologies.
  • Last not least, we have to equitably share the burden resulting from mitigating climate among poor and rich countries and find ways and means for financing the huge investments to be made in alternative energies.

All this needs to be done within the next 40 years, with the basic rules to be agreed upon in 2009 and the new climate contract to enter into force by the end of 2012. It is a tall order that requires unprecedented political leadership by the major emitter countries of green house gases.

It is a subject in flux. Even scientific data are controversial. The more so the recipes for dealing with climate change. That does not facilitate the discussion.

We must avoid falling into the traps of extremists. Neither will climate change mean the end of the world, nor would it be responsible to ignore it and abstain from taking adequate action. The balance will be very, very difficult to establish.

We need as good a scientific basis as possible and focus our action on measures which will minimise the harm to our present well-being. We should not be guided by lobbyists dramatising the negative impact of climate action on business and employment.

In order to make the subject intelligible I shall proceed in the following


  • Lay out the basic scientific data about climate change
  • Review the efforts of international climate change policy during the last 20 years
  • Examine the technical means to address the issue
  • Examine the most effective economic means to address it
  • the preparations for the Climate Conference in Copenhagen December 2009.
Eberhard Rhein 07.04.09
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