CLIMATE CHANGE: 'We Have Run Out of Time'

By Julio Godoy

ROME, Jun 14 (IPS) - New scientific research suggests that climate change is taking place faster than foreseen in studies considered so far, according to environmental experts at a forum on climate change called by the Global Legislators Organisation for a Balanced Environment (GLOBE).

"We have run out of time," Ashok Khosla, president of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world's largest environmental association, told IPS. "Climate change is happening at a swifter speed than we thought so far."

Khosla, an Indian national, holds degrees in physics and natural sciences, and has taught and worked on environmental and social economics since the 1970s. He leads several non-governmental organisations committed to human development.

Katherine Richardson, a leading marine biologist researching the effect of climate change effect on the oceans, told IPS, "Sea levels are rising 50 percent faster than expected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

"If humankind does not stop climate change in the immediate future, at the observed present rate sea levels shall rise by at least one metre by the year 2010." This would aggravate the catastrophic consequences already forecast for human settlements along coasts, especially in the developing world, she said.

The acidity of oceans' water is also increasing rapidly, Richardson said. "If nothing changes to stop global warming, by 2065 no region will have corals."

This degradation of the oceans has been provoked by a fast rise in greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions. "The emissions in the last three or four years were all above the estimated range of projections," Richardson said. "Since 1990, emissions have risen by 17 percent."

This growth in GHG emissions since 1990 has important relative and absolute value because that year's emissions are used to measure reductions foreseen in the Kyoto protocol. Under Kyoto, industrialised countries agreed to reduce their collective GHG emissions by 5.2 percent compared to 1990 levels.

The growth is dramatic, because "societies and ecosystems are highly vulnerable to even modest levels of climate change. Temperature rises above two degrees Celsius will be very difficult for contemporary societies to cope with," Richardson said.

Khosla said that conventional wisdom on climate change is that average rise in temperatures should not go beyond two degrees Celsius in order to keep rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere below 400 parts per million (ppm).

"But we are already at 387 ppm," Khosla said. "We have practically no time to stop this growth of greenhouse gases emissions."

Despite intense international dialogue over the last 40 years on the environmental consequences of economic growth, and almost 20 years of debates on how to tackle climate change and solve the environmental crisis associated with global warming, "practically nothing has been reached so far," Ian Dunlop, an Australian economist and expert on energy told IPS.

"Since 1972, when the Club of Rome published its study on the 'Limits of Growth', and outlined the problem of unsustainable economic growth, humankind has proved incapable of accepting, so far, that the most important factor for our own survival is the preservation of a biosphere fit for human habitation," Dunlop said. The Club of Rome is a global think-tank that carried out pioneering work on climate change.

Richardson, Khosla, and Dunlop were in Rome Jun. 12-13 to participate in the international forum on climate change organised by GLOBE. The forum brought together more than 100 environmental legislators from 13 countries, and several scientists and experts.

Dunlop pointed out that because of the global economic depression, industrialised nations are trying to encourage more consumption. "Governments are applying economic measures conceived some 80 years ago to stimulate old industries and save banks, and by so doing are skyrocketing their deficits and debts, thus crowding out investments in environmental policies," he said.

The solutions for tackling climate change are clear, Dunlop said. "The problem is that vested interests, representing the old economy, which caused climate change, keep a tight hold of politics."

Khosla said the world is ravaged by a demographic crisis and by an unjust concentration of income, closely linked to a dramatic degradation of the environment.

"The richest fifth of the world's population takes some 85 percent of the world's income," Khosla said. "Meanwhile 2.5 billion people, well over one- third of the world's population, must survive with less than two dollars per day."

At the same time, the poorest people are the main victims of the environmental degradation associated with climate change and the depletion of nature by the present economic model. "Some three to four billion people are surviving on a landscape of poverty, vulnerability, and environmental degradation," Khosla said.

New global policies must, he said, aim to increase human development in the poorest countries to solve "the climate change paradox: by 2050, the world will have several billion extra tonnes of carbon emissions, unless the poorest populations have access to higher levels of energy services." This is only possible with "human, sustainable development, now, and for all inhabitants of the world."

Colin Bradford, economist at the Brookings Institute in the U.S., called on governments to "recover economics from neo-liberal ideologies." Since the 1970s, he said, following the rise to power of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and former U.S. president Ronald Reagan, "economics stopped to be a social science and became a prisoner of ideologues."

These ideologues' belief that free markets would correct themselves, and set the prices right, "has proven utterly wrong," Bradford told IPS. "For instance, the oil market price is wrong, the carbon market price is wrong, both are too low."

The prices of both have a strong impact on climate change. A low price makes both fossil fuels more competitive compared with low-carbon energy sources. Scientists agree that the combustion of fossil fuels, which produces high amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, is the main cause of global warming and climate change.