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With Nature There Are No Special Effects
Published on Friday, June 4, 2004 by TomDispatch.com
With Nature There Are No Special Effects
by Renato Redentor Constantino
 

Climate change.

Suddenly, because of a movie, so many are now talking about the greatest threat the planet has ever faced.

The Day after Tomorrow is science fiction, but global warming is real. Will the movie end up trivializing the impact of climate change and thus increase indifference? Or will it spur more people to take action? Too early to tell.

Is reality more frightening than Hollywood? With nature there are no special effects, only consequences.

Up to 64% of China's glaciers are projected to disappear by 2050, putting at risk up to a quarter of the country's population who are dependent on the water released from those glaciers.

Today in the Arctic, ice thickness has declined by over 40% and "an area larger than the Netherlands is disappearing every year." According to scientists, Arctic sea ice could melt entirely by the end of the century.

Ice cores from Svalbard glaciers in the Arctic region show that the twentieth century was "by far the warmest century" in the last 800 years.

Between 1998 and 2001, the Qori Kalis glacier in Peru has retreated an average of 155 meters annually -- a rate three times faster than the average yearly retreat for the previous three years, and thirty-two times faster than the average yearly retreat from 1963 to 1978.

Just southeast of Mount Everest in the Himalayan Khumbu Range of Eastern Nepal, the Imja Glacier has been retreating at a rate of close to 10 meters annually. It is but one among many glaciers currently in rapid retreat. According to Syed Iqbal Hasnain of the International Commission for Snow and Ice, "Glaciers in the Himalayas are receding faster than in any other part of the world. If the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 is very high." Over two billion people depend on the glacier-fed flow of the rivers from the Himalayan mountains.

In Patagonia, ice fields have lost 42 cubic kilometers of ice every year for the last seven years, equivalent to the volume of ten thousand large football stadiums.

The scientific journal Nature published this year the findings of 19 eminent biological scientists. Climate change, they concluded, will "commit to extinction" 18% to 35% of all land-based animal and plant species.

Over 20,000 people died in Europe last year as a result of an extreme heat wave.

In Alaska, average annual temperatures have risen by 5 degrees since the 1960s.

According to leading reinsurance companies such as Munich Re and Swiss Re, climate-change related damages might cost $150 billion annually within a decade. The companies warn that unless action is taken today, the insurance industry could go bankrupt as extreme weather events such as storms and droughts increase in severity and frequency.

Vice Premier Hui Liangyu of China recently warned that his country is already facing "a grim situation" as warming temperatures inexorably give rise to increasingly unusual weather patterns. China has had 16 consecutive warmer winters since 1985 and temperatures are projected to increase in the coming decades. Last year, combined extremes of flooding and drought ravaged China's agriculture. In 2003, climate-change related damages cost an estimated $65 billion globally, including $10 billion in agricultural losses from last summer's heat wave in Europe. The impact of global warming on agriculture in the developing world, including, for instance, the salinization of irrigation systems owing to rising sea levels and depleted rivers, has been nothing short of devastating.

The incidence of diseases such as malaria and dengue fever carried by insects that thrive in warm temperatures is expected to increase dramatically in the coming years, possibly straining beyond limits the modest resources of government health systems in developing countries. Recent studies suggest that close to 300 million more people would be at risk from malaria if global temperatures continue to increase.

An eight-year study conducted by 100 scientists showed that in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, sea levels are projected to rise by 30 centimeters by 2030. According to another study, sea levels may rise by 30 to 70 centimeters by the end of this century. The long coastline of China forms the base for about 70% of its large cities, where nearly 60% of the national economy is located. Some studies suggest that a 30-centimeter rise in sea levels will typically result in a 30-meter retreat in shoreline. How deadly then will the effect of rising sea levels be on archipelagic countries such as the Philippines?

Climate change is not called "the great amplifier" for nothing. Hunger, misery, thirst, and want -- the consequences of all the flaws in our world's economic systems will be magnified, giving rise to ever more resource-related conflicts in addition to those already created by the madness of the American imperial enterprise.

"Climate change," said Sir David King, Chief Scientific Adviser to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, "is the most severe problem that we are facing today -- more serious even than the threat of terrorism."

Great as the problem of climate change may be, most often neglected is the fact that solutions are readily available -- solutions that, sadly, are just not being used; solutions that can prevent climate change from taking a more dangerous and unpredictable trajectory; solutions that are not only immediately beneficial to the environment but have immense economic potential as well. The global wind industry alone, for instance, has been enjoying a growth rate of over 30% annually for the last five years with wind-power costs dropping by 50% in the last 15 years. Resources from the sun, the tides, the waves, geothermal power -- all these are waiting to be harnessed; waiting, despite the enormity of the danger confronting us, because the resources that should be used to tap their regenerative power economically remain dedicated to the fossil fuel and nuclear industries. A planetary betrayal.

We all know what the problem is: burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil along with the unsustainable and inequitable use of our planet's resources. And we know what we have to do. We must generate our energy from clean, safe, renewable resources and use our energy in a sustainable way.

Because there really is no other way.

The measurable, time-bound development of renewable energy based on real and ambitious targets, matched with deep, rapid cuts in CO2 emissions -- this is what's needed today if we are to save the global commons from devastating climate-change impacts.

Big or small, populous, powerful, or frail, each country and each individual has a central role to play in redirecting our planet away from its present deadly course. After all, as a great reminder goes, if the world were a huge airplane about to crash, would it really matter that you were seated in first class?

The task of taking back the pilot's cockpit from those who have hijacked our plane of a planet must be our number one priority.

The time for indifference is over. We must demand nothing less than an energy revolution. Taking action the day after tomorrow may well be too late. Actua ya. Act now. El dia es hoy.

The day for action is today.

Renato Redentor Constantino is the climate and energy campaign advisor to Greenpeace in China. His work includes documenting the impact of global warming, of dirty energy, and of energy policy there, as well as securing a beachhead for the massive uptake of renewable energy in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, the economic engine of China at the moment. Constantino also writes a regular column for the Philippine national daily TODAY. He can be reached at xioi@excite.com. He worked for a number of years as the climate and energy campaigner of Greenpeace in Southeast Asia.

Copyright C2004 Renato Redentor Constantino

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