Why the world must act on global warming now

Thursday October 22 2009


By now, world opinion leaders have gone beyond issuing warnings about climate change – which is becoming more obvious every day – and shifted attention to what must be done to mitigate the effects of this change, allow the most vulnerable countries to adapt, and pay the costs incurred in reducing carbon emissions.

Unfortunately, we in Africa do not seem to have noticed this. We are still stuck in a rut, lamenting how vulnerable we are, and how unfair it is for the poorest countries which were never responsible for destroying the environment in the first place.

Our scientists, statesmen and thinkers must stop crying wolf and seek ways and finances to ensure we do not suffer unduly in this looming global catastrophe.

Every other day, we hear how deforestation, unsuitable land-use, air pollution and lack of alternative fuel sources have led to climate change as manifested in unpredictable seasons, drying up water sources, prolonged droughts and devastating floods, which are all conspiring to make life hell for the already vulnerable.

What these people sounding the alarm keep forgetting is that right now, everyone is feeling the effects of climate change – both the heavy polluters and those who live in tropical forests and have never seen a motorcar or any factory bigger than a flour-mill. We are in this thing together and we must seek solutions together.

Specific measures

The key is for decision-makers to consider specific measures that can, and must, be taken in a systematic and sustainable manner to cut carbon emissions.

European Union (EU) countries and Japan are leading the way in this effort. They are already committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by between 25 per cent and 40 per cent by 2020. The new administration in the US – the biggest polluter of all – seems committed to jumping on board as soon as is practicable.

The reason why Europe and Japan are so committed is not necessarily altruistic. They have recognised that global warming has become an existential threat which could turn into a global catastrophe.

If we the poorest countries miss the boat this time, as we did with globalisation, we shall have only ourselves to blame when most of our lands turn into deserts.

All these things, and more, became clear to me during a Global Editors Conference addressed by leading scholars in Copenhagen, Denmark, a fortnight ago. The three-day conference was sponsored by the Danish government and Project Syndicate, which disseminates commentaries and analyses by the world’s most distinguished scholars to 432 newspapers in 150 countries.

For me to mix and mingle with such luminaries as Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs, Nicholas Stern, Joscha Fischer, Ernesto Zedillo, Peter Singer and the Danish minister for Climate and Energy, Ms Connie Hedegaard, was an education in itself.

So were the addresses by keynote speakers, among them former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen and European Commission president Jose Manuel Barosso.

But this conference was a precursor to perhaps the most important gathering of the decade, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, 2009, (COP 15) opening on December 15 in Copenhagen.

The conference is the successor to the Kyoto Convention signed on December 11, 1997, and which came into force eight years later after 37 countries signed a protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.

The protocol was doomed right from the start when the United States refused to sign it, presumably because China and India had begged off, arguing that to cut carbon emissions would stunt industrial growth and retard their economies.

But regardless of the level of commitment articulated, there is an unmistakeable consensus: COP 15 has to succeed, because failure to negotiate carbon reduction is not an option.

COP 15 hopes to achieve one concrete aim: a definite cut in global warming by 2°C. This is certainly a lofty goal but experts believe it is attainable given global political will, realistic environmental policies, and success in innovating the technology to develop clean sources of energy to replace dwindling fossil fuels. These sources of alternative energy include wind-power, solar and nuclear energy.

But it is becoming increasingly clear that individual countries cannot achieve much on their own. Global warming knows no territorial boundaries, which is why a global agreement is imperative.

At the same time, there are those poor countries which cannot keep pace with this search for new technology. There is great danger that they will sink deeper into poverty because they are not equipped to leap-frog industrialisation straight to the “green revolution”.


That is why the most vulnerable countries are seeking some form of accommodation during COP 15 – a fulfilment of what Mr Annan calls “climate justice”. Developing countries, experts concur, need at least $100 billion a year to mitigate the effects of, and adapt to, climate change.

The argument is that those most responsible for excessive greenhouse gases that depleted the ozone layer leading to global warming have a duty to help the rest of the world to cope with the effects.

To that end, even $100 billion a year cannot be adequate. It is upon countries like Kenya, which are already being buffeted by droughts, floods and food insecurity, to press their case in Copenhagen.

If they do not speak up now, there is no way they will cope with ecological disasters that will inevitably bring about a rise in lethal diseases and enduring poverty.