Scour the headlines that came out of Durban, South Africa, where thousands met to try, try, try to mediate a future for a warming planet (officially it is the “17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change” — UNFCCC COP 17) and one key word spikes: Urgent!
“Expectations low, but urgency high.” “Stormy negotiations take on urgent need.” “Chinese say agreement by 2020 is urgent.”
The meetings were opened with a statement from the Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization announcing that worldwide temps in 2011 are tied for the tenth highest since records began being kept in 1850. (Thirteen of the warmest years on record have all occurred since 1997.)
In a calendar year that has seen an unnatural number of natural catastrophes rock the planet (here in the Hudson Valley, New York we were jolted by an earthquake one day, flattened by Hurricane Irene winds the next) I’m probably not alone in thinking urgency actually sounds very … yesterday. Emergency might be a substitute.
“Expectations low, but emergency high.” “Stormy negotiations take on emergency need.” “Chinese say agreement by 2020 is an emergency.”
The planet is expressing its concern as well. Durban attendees were greeted by a torrential rainfall (2.5 inches in one night), which killed eight, destroyed 700 houses, covered beaches with debris and left thousands homeless. The South Africa weather bureau reports the city has received twice as much rainfall as normal during November.
While conferees have been careful about directly linking the horrific weather pounding down all around them specifically to climate change, for many the correlation is not a hard leap to make. Durban is hardly alone in 2011 for having endured highly abnormal weather:
- Record droughts and fires have wracked Texas and America’s southwest
- The worst floods in 50 years have destroyed low-lying Thailand, filling Bangkok streets;
- Mud slides have inundated suburban Sao Paulo;
- Monsoons rains have whipped Sri Lanka;
- More and more of China is turning into desert, thanks to rainfalls in some areas that are more than 50 percent below average;
- While sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean is the second lowest since records began being kept in 1979.
- Meanwhile the global ocean is turning hot and sour, a kind of giant sink for CO2 emitted by the burning of fossil fuels, making it 30 percent more acidic than just a few years ago.
One of the most-concerned groups represented in Durban was the 43-member Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), led by the prominent example of Tuvalu, the fourth smallest nation in the world, which a few months ago came within a few barrels of running out of fresh water.
But big nations are hardly safe: A heat wave in Russia drove world wheat prices up by 47 percent.
And there are political consequences too. The “Arab Spring” was fueled in part by protest against high and volatile food prices due to a combination of heat and floods raising the cost of everything from transportation to produce.
According to a report out of Canada, global insurer Munich Re, which has been studying climate change for 40 years, the number of losses around the world attributable to extreme weather has tripled since 1980. Floods have gone up by a factor of three and severe windstorms doubled.
The big question I have is, Can conferences really make a difference? Last time this same group met, in Cancun, it pledged to limit global average temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial times. That allowable limit has already been raised to as much as 4.5 degrees.
So much for urgency.
(For more of my dispatches go to Takepart.com)