Are we close to reaching a critical mass on the debate and the evidence on global warming that will shred the cover of doubt and disinformation behind which many rent-a-scientist governments have been hiding? It would appear so with the two devastating reports issued so far by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which talk of Himalayas melting, rivers drying, refugees fleeing and food shortages. By the end of this year when all four reports and supporting studies are in, the holes will be plugged and escape hatchets sealed.
Over the past three months the debate has clearly moved from the tentativeness of whether global warming is taking place to you bet, and what are we going to do about it. More than 2,000 Scientists from around the world on the UN panel are agreed, big business led by the insurance industry is coming around and citizens groups are lending their weight. Finally the environmentalists can enjoy the consensus on the catastrophe they began warning about years ago but nobody listened because profits and lifestyles were at stake. Crackpot theories about cyclical warming to a determined refusal to face the evidence determined agenda, especially in the United States which instead of showing leadership on the issue hid behind the fog of deliberate deception.
But momentum is now building against runaway consumption and a rampant rape of resources. Even the US Supreme Court weighed in this week, telling the Bush Administration-- the most regressive on the issue of global warming-- that it must use its power to limit carbon emissions. For a decidedly conservative court to intervene and take what amounts to a political stand is a step in the right direction. But don't hold your breath for the White House to spring into action because President Bush has had the distinction of appointing a former oil industry lobbyist as his lead man on the environment. He edited reports to emphasise uncertainties on global warming until he was discovered in 2005 when he slid away to join Exxon Mobil.
But others in the US are joining the chorus. The American Meteorological Society spokesman Toni Socci said this week that the world needs something like a Marshall Plan to combat climate change on a war footing. If we are to stabilize the climate today, emissions would have to be cut by 70 percent. There are many eminent US scientists on the UN panel, including the one who is credited with having successfully plugged the ozone hole.
So far the European Union is taking the political lead on the issue and that's welcome. At the end of a summit in Brussels early March, EU leaders agreed to cut overall levels of greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels by the year 2020. They also vowed to up the figure to 30 percent if the rest of the industrialized world does the same. Read the United States and Australia. Under the increasingly skillful leadership of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who holds the rotating EU presidency, they also pledged to getting at least 20 percent of all their energy needs from renewable sources by the same date. Tony Blair of Britain called climate change the most pressing political issue of our times.
It is only a matter of time before pressure builds on India and China to do "something" more than harp on the historic injustices of the issue. However good the merits of the argument, it just won't justify inaction. Wait till the western business lobby begins highlighting India's carbon emissions as a reason not to change. Why should we suffer loss in profits when Indian businessmen are under no pressure, they will argue. When the Kyoto Protocol was being negotiated in the 90s, American networks were filled with ads created by US business associations denouncing India as a greenhouse nightmare.
A repeat of that nasty negative campaign is a distinct possibility. In fact, traces have already begun to appear. A recent front-page article in the International Herald Tribune highlighted the Indian craze for air-conditioners at a time when global warming is a huge issue. Wait for the chorus to grow louder as reporters discover other ways Indians are consuming more and warming the earth. Of course, western lifestyles dependent on central air-conditioning and heating, often at levels well beyond human need, multiple cars, vacations and wastefulness have not begun inciting pointed commentary yet.
Western habits will have to change and most likely they will slowly, but it will no longer be possible for India to point the finger at the west as the guilty party and continue growing at 9 percent annually, burning whatever it takes to get there. It won't be tenable even though India and China have every right to give their people all the refrigerators and cars they want. Not only because "we-are-all-in-it-together" and we all have a responsibility to saving Mother Earth but because the second UN report shows the suffering would be greater in poorer parts of the world, those least equipped to deal with it. Countries in the north, those further from the equator will be less affected and will in fact gain in the short term with better rainfall for their agriculture. Countries such as India will suffer more.
You could say nature is being unfair in granting reprieve and more time to those who already have more money, technology and even awareness among the general populace to deal with the problem they created. But this unfairness should create a political consensus among the developing countries and India-- growing fast but with vast problems of poverty, flooding, drinking water and deforestation-- to come up with a plan to demand clean technology at fair prices from those who have it.