Archive for December, 2008

Climate Change: Chasm Widens Between Science and Policy

December 19, 2008

Monday 15 December 2008


by: Stephen Leahy, Inter Press Service


Despite dire warnings from scientists and environmentalists, many regions remain unwilling to adopt necessary changes and standards to encourage a healthier climate. (Photo:

    Quebec City, Canada – The roof of our house is on fire while the leaders of our family sit comfortably in the living room below preoccupied with “political realities” – that was essentially the message from 1,000 scientists from around the world along with northern indigenous leaders gathered in Quebec City for the International Arctic Change conference that concluded last weekend.

    “Climate change and its impacts are accelerating at unexpected rates with global consequences,” delegates warned in a statement.

    Presenting data from hundreds of studies and research projects detailing the Arctic region’s rapid meltdown and cascading ecological impacts, participants urged governments to take “immediate measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”.

    By happy coincidence, 190 governments were meeting at the same time in Poznan, Poland to do just that: reach an agreement on how much to reduce emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. Except that they decided to do nothing. They couldn’t even agree to help poorer nations survive the ever-worsening climate crisis by providing funds to strengthen infrastructure, build flood defences and improve agriculture.

    In chance hallway encounters in Quebec City, scientists – strictly off the record for fear of losing funding – said climate change is happening far faster and is having much larger impacts than they ever imagined.

    “Climate change will be an overwhelming global tragedy without major reductions now,” said one Canadian expert.

    In Poznan, politicians declared the meeting a success and pledged to agree to cut emissions at next year’s meeting in Copenhagen.

    Meanwhile, the physics of carbon and climate will not wait for economic recovery or a more felicitous political climate.

    In 1992, the global community came together in Rio de Janeiro, agreed climate change was a real danger and promised to reduce their emissions of CO2 and other global warming gases. It took five years to create the first climate change treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, which committed rich countries to emissions reductions of five percent below their 1990 levels.

    Many countries will meet their very modest reduction targets – with notable exceptions like Canada and Japan, which are grossly over-target by 30 percent. But as far as the atmosphere is concerned, all that counts is global CO2 emissions, and they’ve skyrocketed.

    Emissions of CO2 have been growing about four times faster since 2000 than during the previous decade, despite efforts to curb emissions in a number of Kyoto Protocol signatory countries, reports the Global Carbon Project, an international collaboration of climate scientists.

    “This new update of the carbon budget shows the acceleration of both CO2 emissions and atmospheric accumulation is unprecedented and most astonishing during a decade of intense international developments to address climate change,” said Pep Canadell, executive director of the Global Carbon Project, in a statement last September.

    The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere today is well ahead of worst-case projections, hence the accelerating meltdown in the Arctic.

    Rather than panicking, governments of Arctic countries seem preoccupied with what they view as an opportunity to exploit the region for its potential energy resources, said Michael Byers, an international law expert at the University of British Columbia in Canada. “National governments don’t get it. We need to keep oil and gas where it is, in the ground,” Byers told IPS in Quebec City.

    Canada’s federal government led by Stephen Harper certainly doesn’t get it. In an assessment of performance on climate change released in Poznan by an international coalition of environmental groups, Canada ranked last amongst developed countries and was second only to Saudi Arabia of the 57 largest greenhouse-gas emitters regarding their performance in fighting climate change.

    During the Poznan climate talks, Canada was frequently cited for delaying and obstructing agreement during the negotiations. Copying the George W. Bush administration’s contempt for science, the Harper government refused to allow Canada’s leading government scientist on climate, Don MacIver, to go Poznan, even though he was scheduled to speak and his travel costs were paid for.

    Fearing continuing “house arrest” under the current government, MacIver has resigned his position as chair of conference organising at the World Meteorological Organisation.

    While governments fail to get it, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 stand at 383 parts per million (ppm) and are climbing at two to three ppm per year. Pre-industrial CO2 levels averaged 270 ppm and some climate experts are calling for the need to return to below 350 ppm to truly stabilise the planet.

    Three million years ago, when CO2 was estimated to be 400 ppm, new fossil evidence shows forests dominated the Arctic instead the ice, snow and permafrost. Sea levels were 24 meteres higher than today, according to the new study by the U.S. Geological Survey.

    In a contest between the relentless physics of climate change and continuing political paralysis, our home is doomed to burn to the ground. Many climate activists say that only a grassroots revolution, a global rebellion that overturns the fossil-fuel economic hegemony, will save us now.



Coral Reef Loss Suggests Global Extinction Event

December 13, 2008

Published December 12, 2008 07:12 AM



The world is on the brink of a massive extinction event, according to the United Nations.

Rapid releases of greenhouse gas emissions are changing habitats at a rate faster than many of the world’s species can tolerate.

“Indeed the world is currently facing a sixth wave of extinctions, mainly as a result of human impacts,” said Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme in a statement.


A study earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science said the current extinction period, known as the Holocene extinction event, may be the greatest event in the Earth’s history and the first due to human actions. Unlike previous events, however, extinctions are happening over the course of decades rather than centuries. Recent studies suggest that a quarter of the world’s species may go extinct by 2050.

The UN warning accompanies an increasingly frequent round of sobering news about ecosystem failures.

The latest global coral reef assessment estimates that 19 percent of the world’s coral reefs are dead. Their major threats include warming sea-surface temperatures and expanding seawater acidification.

Zooxanthellae, the tiny organisms that give coral reefs their vibrant colors, are emigrating from their hosts in massive numbers as oceans heat up, killing themselves and the coral they leave behind – a process known as coral bleaching.

The report, released by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network Wednesday at the international climate change negotiations in Poznań, Poland, predicts that many of the remaining reefs may disappear within the next 40 years if current emission trends continue.

“If nothing is done to substantially cut emissions, we could effectively lose coral reefs as we know them, with major coral extinctions,” said Clive Wilkinson, the network’s coordinator, in a press release.

Overfishing, pollution, and invasive species continue to be risks as well, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The IUCN declared in October that 38 percent of the 44,838 species it studied across the world are threatened with extinction. Its Red List of Threatened Species considers 22 percent of the world’s mammals, 31 percent of amphibians, and 14 percent of birds threatened or extinct.

Steiner’s warnings of mass extinction came last week as the U.N. Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals added 21 migratory species to its protection list. Migratory species are among the most at-risk to climate change, according to a UNEP report released last year [PDF].

To its list of protected animals, which include the cheetah and Egyptian vulture, the convention added six dolphin species. Nearly one-quarter of the world’s dolphin species are threatened with extinction, mostly due to habitat loss and live capture, according to IUCN.

The demise of coral reefs, however, affects the entire ocean ecosystem – a quarter of all marine fish species reside in the reefs, according to The Nature Conservancy. In addition, IUCN estimates that 500 million people depend on coral reefs for their livelihoods.

The coral reef assessment found that 45 percent of the world’s reefs are healthy – providing hope that some species may be able to endure the changes expected from global warming. Marine biologists are now attempting to understand how certain coral reef species can survive warmer, more acidic ocean waters when others are less fortunate.

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He cansd be reached at

For permission to reprint this article, please contact Julia Tier at

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