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Will Year of Extremes End with a Whimper?

by Stephen Leahy

CANCÚN, Mexico - This year will likely be the warmest ever recorded, with soaring ocean temperatures resulting in a near record die-off of tropical corals, extreme heat and drought in Russia and massive flooding in Pakistan - all signs that climate change has taken hold.

Oxfam activists place a bottle with a message on the beach in Cancun, Mexico, on Sunday. Nearly 200 countries were gathering in Cancun on Monday under the UN flag and behind tight security for a fresh attempt to craft a treaty to roll back the threat of climate change. (AFP/Ronaldo Schemidt) But despite the ever more compelling science regarding the urgency and risks of climate change and growing public support for action, representatives from nearly 200 countries meeting here in Cancún for the next two weeks are unlikely to produce a new binding agreement.

At best, matters such as forestry, climate finance and mitigation commitments will be further developed in the faint hope that the next big meeting in South Africa might produce some kind of deal.

"Carbon emissions continue to climb despite the economic recession and yet I have never seen such low expectations for a COP (Conference of the Parties)," said Richard Somerville, an eminent climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California.

"The science is quite compelling regarding the need for urgent action. We don't have another five years to reach an agreement," Somerville told TerraViva.

In 2009, Somerville and others co-authored an update on the latest climate science called 'The Copenhagen Diagnosis' which concluded that global carbon emissions had to peak and begin to decline before 2020 to have any hope of keeping global warming to less than 2.0 degrees C.

However, the negotiators in Cancún will mostly not be acting on the science but on their national interests as directed by their political leadership, who largely do not understand climate change, he said.

"Developed countries think they can adapt to warmer temperatures. I don't see how we can keep warming below 2.0 degrees C.," Somerville said.

Cancún is the 16th meeting of the Conference of Parties of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, an international body formed after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit to deal with the pressing global problem of climate change.

At that time, virtually all countries agreed that emissions of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, had to decline. In Kyoto, Japan, industrialised countries promised to reduce their emissions by five percent from the 1990 base year.

However, global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels in 2008 were 40 percent higher than those in 1990 primarily because northern countries like the United States failed to make reductions while emissions by some developing countries like China increased dramatically.

At the last COP in Copenhagen, industrialised countries agreed to keep the rise in global temperatures below 2.0 C. However, even if countries live up to their vague emission reduction pledges in the Copenhagen Accord, humanity is headed for 2.6-5C of warming by 2100 by most analyses.

This range is what most scientists call dangerous or catastrophic climate change, including the loss of coral reefs and other important ecosystems. Moreover, the northern latitudes will heat up much more than the global average - perhaps seven to 14 degrees C in the polar regions - almost certainly guaranteeing the release of vast quantities of methane from the Arctic permafrost.

"Potential methane release from northern permafrost and wetlands under future climate change is of great concern," warned the World Meteorological Organisation in a bulletin last week. Methane is a greenhouse gas with 25 times more warming potential than carbon dioxide, and now has atmospheric levels 158 percent higher than pre-industrial times.

The Copenhagen Accord has so many loopholes countries can claim they've kept their promises while increasing their emissions, said Sivan Kartha, a climate scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, an independent international policy research institute.

"It should be exposed for the embarrassment that it is, the loopholes closed off and national reduction commitments increased," Kartha told IPS.

The strong sense of common purpose at the Rio Earth Summit to meet the dangers of climate change has been lost and negotiations reduced to what seems to be just another trade negotiation, he said.

"In Copenhagen the open, transparent and democratic process that had been key to earlier negotiations vanished. It may be the same in Cancún where small groups of countries do deals behind closed doors," he said.

Such deals nearly always tilt negotiations to just one perspective. What works for China and the U.S., for example, may be very bad for those countries most impacted by climate change, Kartha says. "The urgency we face should not justify a bad deal for some."

The exclusion of the interests of small countries and civil society in Copenhagen prompted 35,000 members of the public and global civil society to meet in Bolivia for a parallel 'people's summit' last April. They signed the Cochabamba People's Accord calling for recognition of a 'Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth' and the creation of an International Climate and Environmental Justice Tribunal.

However, those proposals from Cochabamba have been excluded from the formal negotiations here in Cancún, according to La Via Campesina, an international peasant movement with millions of members.

"During the last moments of discussion, the proposals of the People's Agreement signed in Cochabamba have been left aside," said Alberto Gomez from La Via Campesina international coordination.

The organisation is mobilising thousands of supporters to march on Cancún to pressure governments to adopt the measures in the Cochabamba People's Accord. A mass demonstration will be held Dec. 7 in Cancún and many other locations around the world. In Cancún, an estimated 6,000 heavily armed Mexican military and police are already on hand to meet them.

"We do not agree with false solutions such as the carbon market because, far from reducing greenhouse gases, it will sooner or later create a speculative system leading the world into another global financial crisis," Gomez said in a statement.

"La Via Campesina mobilises to denounce the irresponsibility of most of the governments who choose to support the capital rather than the interest of their nation and of humanity as a whole," he said.

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