Monday, November 13, 2006

Fiddling while the planet burns

With just a few days to go, the United Nations climate change conference in Nairobi is stalled. As delegates gathered for the second week of talks, there was no sign of setting goals for a Kyoto Treaty Mark II after the present one expires in 2012. India, China, Brazil and other developing economies are reluctant to talk about carbon emission cuts while the developed economies continue to pump out greenhouse gases like CO2 as if there were no tomorrow, which is exactly what will happen one day if things remain as they are. Not that the original Kyoto treaty has had much effect, with figures showing a sharp upturn in global greenhouse gas emissions in the past five years. Dr Mike Raupach, chair of the Global Carbon Project, an international collaboration of researchers who compiled the latest figures, warns that emissions are spiralling out of control. "This is a very worrying sign. It indicates that recent efforts to reduce emissions have had virtually no impact on emissions growth and that effective caps are urgently needed," he said. Australia and the United States are not even party to Kyoto I, of course. Given the impossibility of getting growth-hungry corporations to stop pumping out products and waste, attention is already turning from reducing emissions to ways of dealing with the impact of climate change. This hopeless approach is known as "adaptation". Even here there is disagreement between rich and poor nations. Western nations want control of a fund to help poorer nations adapt to climate change to lie with a body tied to the World Bank, while developing countries understandably want to decide themselves how funds are allocated.

The stalemate at the talks is in stark contrast to what is going on in the real world. The fact that the meeting is in Nairobi only reminds delegates that climate change will hit the African continent hardest hit, and lives have already been wrecked as failing rains kill livestock and destroy the livelihood of millions. According to research commissioned by the charity Christian Aid, the people most likely to be wiped out by devastating global warming live only a few hundred miles away from the conference venue. These are the three million pastoralists of northern Kenya, whose way of life has sustained them for thousands of years but who now face eradication. Hundreds of thousands of these seasonal herders have already been forced to forsake their traditional culture and settle in Kenya's north eastern province following consecutive droughts that have decimated their livestock in recent years. The experts in Nairobi say the region's highest mountains – Kenya and Kilimanjaro – will lose their glaciers, leading to the drying up of most of the rivers emanating from the two mountains. They also say that many coastal areas, including much of the infrastructure in East Africa and elsewhere on the continent will be submerged if governments, industry and the society do not take concrete steps to reverse the ongoing changes in the climate. Governments are determined that nothing should rock the business-as-usual scenario of the global market economy, which is primarily responsible for the climate crisis. This is unacceptable and because governments won’t act, others will have to show the way. Nairobi confirms that the political and economic elites in the major capitals are fiddling while the planet burns, paralysed in the face of vested corporate interests. A World to Win’s action plan to halt climate chaos is based on ordinary people seizing the political and economic initiative themselves. Ours is a challenging alternative strategy but at least it tells it how it is.

Gerry Gold, economics editor

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