Kyoto saved: not yet the planet

Feature story - 22 October, 2004
The Russian Parliament voted to ratify the Kyoto Protocol in a body blow to George W Bush's opposition to action on climate change.

Putin finally got the message.

Kyoto coming to force is a geopolitical ground shift. Russianratification pushes this global climate protection agreement over thethreshold required to become international law.

You can feel the tectonic plates of global politics grating on oneanother as the rest of the world signs up to the Protocol and leavesthe Bush administration and their largest single share of the globe'sgreenhouse gas emissions behind.

We can only hope that the industrial revolution of the 20th centurywill be followed by an energy revolution of equal magnitude in the 21st.

The goal of the international climate regime is to "avoid dangerousclimate change." Unfortunately, "dangerous" is in the eye of thebeholder, or the victim. To Pacific islanders whose homes are vanishingbeneath the waves, to Arctic indigenous people whose way of life isbeing erased due to climate change already, we have already crossedthat threshold. The same could be said for devastated homeowners in theCaribbean, Florida and the recent victims of typhoons in Japan. Thetens of thousands of people who died in the summer heat waves in Europetwo years ago also probably thought it was a bit "dangerous."

What's another two degrees?

Scientists have drawn a line in the sand: a point at which theimpacts of climate change become not just bad, but calamitous and insome cases irreversible.

They benchmark it at "2º celsius (3.6 fahrenheit) global averagetemperature increase above pre-industrial levels." If we turned off thesmokestacks today the greenhouse gases already loaded into theatmosphere would take us to 1.3º celsius (2.3 fahrenheit).

If global temperatures hit that barrier, it's bad news for all ofus. It raises the likelihood of the complete meltdown of the Greenlandice sheet, and possible collapse of the Amazon rainforest ecosystem.Tens of millions of people could suddenly be hungry, hundreds ofmillions would find themselves threatened with malaria in places wheremalaria had never previously occurred, millions could have their homesflooded and billions could be without enough water.

"Already we are witnessing increased storms at sea and floods in ourcities," Chief UK Scientist David King said recently. "Global warmingwill increase the level and frequency at which we experience heightenedweather patterns." Dr. King is also on record as saying climate changeis a bigger threat than terrorism.

"Action is affordable. Inaction is not," he told the third Greenpeace Business Lecture in central London.

Fortunately, some in the US are breaking ranks with the BushAdministration's opposition to the treaty and ExxonMobil's corporatestrategy of active lobbying to undermine it. (see Greenpeace Briefing - Kyoto, the USA and business)

We believe that the world needs to bring total emissions back to1990 levels by about 2020, then reduce them by 50 percent bymid-century. (see Greenpeace Briefing - How much climate change can we bear?)

But even that may be too conservative a strategy if the recent unexplained spikes in carbon dioxide emissions continue for the next few years on trend.

Now that we have the Protocol in place, the only question whichremains is whether politicians can act faster than the climate canchange.

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