Kyoto saved: not yet the planet

Feature Story - 2004-10-22
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. Russian ratification pushes this global climate protection agreement over the threshold required to become international law.

You can feel the tectonic plates of global politics grating on one another as the rest of the world signs up to the Protocol and leaves the Bush administration and their largest single share of the globe's greenhouse gas emissions behind.

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

The goal of the international climate regime is to "avoid dangerous climate change." Unfortunately, "dangerous" is in the eye of the beholder, or the victim. To Pacific islanders whose homes are vanishing beneath the waves, to Arctic indigenous people whose way of life is being erased due to climate change already, we have already crossed that threshold. The same could be said for devastated homeowners in the Caribbean, Florida and the recent victims of typhoons in Japan. The tens of thousands of people who died in the summer heat waves in Europe two 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 the impacts of climate change become not just bad, but calamitous and in some cases irreversible.

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

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

"Already we are witnessing increased storms at sea and floods in our cities," Chief UK Scientist David King said recently. "Global warming will increase the level and frequency at which we experience heightened weather patterns." Dr. King is also on record as saying climate change is 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 Bush Administration's opposition to the treaty and ExxonMobil's corporate strategy 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 to 1990 levels by about 2020, then reduce them by 50 percent by mid-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 which remains is whether politicians can act faster than the climate can change.

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