Science Matters: Copenhagen climate summit is crucial

By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola.

The buzz around the December UN climate summit in Copenhagen is increasing. Some of you may be wondering what it’s all about. Why is this one meeting so important? And does it really matter if it succeeds or fails?

The answer is that it matters a lot, especially if we want to tackle global warming rather than just talking and arguing about it.

Global warming is a global problem requiring global solutions. The atmosphere doesn’t stay within federal or provincial boundaries. It is a global commons. Greenhouse gases emitted in Canadian provinces mix with those from every other part of the world and affect everyone. A molecule of carbon is a molecule of carbon. It has the same impact on the environment whether it came from a smokestack in Toronto or a taxi’s tailpipe in Kuala Lumpur.

Every nation must do its part. And each country needs reassurance that others are also acting. We need a global agreement that is legally binding with rules clearly outlined.

The science of climate change is evolving rapidly. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s last report is now two years old, and the research in that report is more than four years old. Recent scientific information shows that the impacts of climate change are happening much more quickly than expected. The polar ice cap is melting at an astonishing rate. Ocean levels are rising more rapidly than predicted. And weather-related disasters are mounting.

Leading scientific institutions such as the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the U.K. Royal Society, and the Royal Society of Canada have declared that current scientific information points to a need for immediate action.

We have no time to waste. Copenhagen is our moment. In fact, two years ago the world agreed that the Copenhagen summit would be the deadline for forging the next global agreement to strengthen and build on the Kyoto Protocol.

Kyoto was always considered to be the first step by industrialized countries, whose fossil-fuel-powered growth created the problem. Establishing the legal framework was an important part of that first step, as were very modest emission reductions. But Copenhagen has to be more than just another small step. Science suggests the issue is urgent, so this step needs to be much bigger if we want our actions to keep pace with increasing climatic changes.

Industrialized countries need to accept binding commitments to reduce their global warming pollution much more dramatically in the next phase of the Kyoto Protocol, after 2012. But we also need to craft a companion treaty to Kyoto, one that lays out the kinds of actions that major developing countries, like India and Indonesia, will take to curb their emissions.

A recent study (PDF) commissioned by Global Humanitarian Forum president and former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan indicates that 50 of the world’s poorest countries collectively produce less than one per cent of the global greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. Yet, these very same countries have been disproportionally affected by climate change. Thus, an essential part of any fair climate agreement must include support from industrialized countries to poorer nations – support in the form of financing and clean technologies so that poorer nations can wean themselves off fossil fuels and better adapt to the impacts of climate change.

This principle – that rich countries like ours have filled up the atmosphere with pollution in the course of our development, and that it’s now our responsibility to assist less-developed countries to follow a clean path to prosperity – is one that goes back to 1992. It was enshrined in the Rio Convention and reiterated in Kyoto, and again two years ago in Bali. But we have yet to meet that promise, and it is time we did.

It is now up to our global leaders – presidents and prime ministers, ministers of finance and environment – to be visionary, to look beyond shorter-term political timelines and imagine a future world of security and prosperity, where our homes and workplaces are fed by clean energy. And it is up to global citizens to ensure that they do.

Visionary leadership requires active and engaged citizens to keep the politicians’ feet to the fire. Your efforts have never been needed more to help make this happen.

Science Matters is published by The David Suzuki Foundation and has been re-syndicated with permission on network since 2000.

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