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Climate blindness: the Pharoanic curse

Is it all over then? The climate change summit in Durban, due to start within a week, appears resigned to the collapse of the Kyoto process for international action to arrest and reverse the damaging and dangerous impacts of global warming. Allegedly the UK along with the EU,US, Japan and other rich nations have all accepted that the end of the Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997 to apply till 2012, will not be followed by any new climate treaty till 2020 at least. Does that matter? The key point is that, according to the UK Met Office, without drastic action now, a worst case scenario of a 4 degrees Celsius rise in the average global temperature above the eighteenth century pre-industrial level will actually be reached as early as 2060.

It means the spread of deserts, the dieback of the Amazon, the massive release of methane and CO2 gases from melted permafrost, the breakdown of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, and the release of 20bn tons of methane hydrates from the ocean floor will produce a climate catastrope unprecedented in palaeohistory. This matters for two key reasons.

One is that these events aren’t just frightening in themselves, they are are also ‘tipping points’ where they generate a sudden and extreme splurge of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere which causes the climate to flip to a new, unpredictable and dangerous state which may be irreversible. The other cause for concern is that, even without this abrupt intensification of climate change, the results may be overwhelming for current civilisation. Thus it has been estimated that without mitigation, much of the US for instance by 2100 would have extreme temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius.

One argument of course is that that has to happen in order to jerk the powers-that-be into action. When a typhoon in the Bay of Bengal in 1991 killed up to 138,000 people, the world hardly took notice; when Hurricane Katrina killed 1,000 people in New Orleans in 2006, it consumed world attention for years. Pharoah dismissed the first nine plagues visited on ancient Egypt, and only gave way when the tenth killed all the firstborn. Things haven’t changed much in 3,000 years. One good reason why so little action has been taken to avert disastrous climate change is that till now some 90% of all climatic catastrophes – severe hurricanes, colossal flooding, desertification, ocean acidity, cropland destruction – have occurred in the southern world, even though it was largely caused by the north.

The truth is that the frenetic demands for growth of industrial capitalism have snuffed out all the precautionary calls for moderation and a transfer to a green global economy. But nature will have her way. In the end, if we are to survive at all (and there have already been 5 mass extinctions in the history of this planet, and humans are no different from other life forms in this respect), we will be forced to change – only it will be far more painful and at a far higher price, with perhaps only a tiny proportion of the human race managing to get through.

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