by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
November 22, 2009
WORLD LEADERS FIDDLE WHILE THE PLANET BURNS
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- For anyone hoping that definitive emissions limits and other aggressive measures to curb rising global temperatures will come out of next month's United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen, think again.
On Sunday at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting in Singapore, it was announced that world leaders, including President Barack Obama, have decided to postpone reaching a legally binding climate change agreement for a year or more - officially derailing the most important goal of the Copenhagen conference. Instead of a binding treaty, they would aim for a looser "political" agreement and put off contentious decisions on emissions targets, financing and technology transfer.
This is nothing short of a disaster for our planet. Why? For most of the last 10,000 years, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hovered at about 275 parts per million (ppm). When we started burning fossil fuels in the late 18th century, the number started to rise. By the time it was first measured in the late 1950s, it was about 315 ppm. Now it's at 390, and growing by more than 2 ppm annually. Carbon dioxide levels have risen higher in the past 100 years than at any other time in the past 800,000 years.
By the estimates of most climatologists, that's too high. According to NASA scientist James Hansen, who first told Congress in 1988 that burning coal and gas and oil was warming the earth, "If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm."
That 350 ppm benchmark - which Hansen calls the safe upper limit for atmospheric CO2 - is unlikely to be reached. To achieve that, all of the world's economies would have to drastically transform themselves within a generation to taper off fossil fuel use. Heading into the Copenhagen conference, the best case scenario was that there would be agreement on holding temperature increases under two degrees Celsius and carbon dioxide to 450 parts per million.
Remember, this would be the best-case scenario. Now, Obama and the world's leaders say they will kick the problem down the road for someone else to deal with.
Unfortunately, there is no more time to delay. Hansen and his team warn that a world at 450 ppm of CO2 is a world that will eventually be largely ice free by the end of the century. Glaciers are already melting around the world and tropical diseases like dengue fever and malaria are showing up in the northern hemisphere. The Maldives and other South Pacific island nations are disappearing as sea levels rise. Drought is gripping the American Southwest, while the Northeast is seeing more torrential downpours more often.
The global warming debate is no longer an argument over whether human activities are the largest factor driving climate change or whether climate change is part of a natural cycle that transcends human influence. It is now a race against catastrophe, and whether humanity can take the necessary steps quickly enough to avoid disaster.
We need to get real about creating and funding a definitive national transition to energy efficiency and modernized mass transit. We need a level playing field for green energy sources such as hydro, wind and solar to compete fairly with fossil fuels and nuclear power - by decreasing subsidies for fossil fuels and nukes and increasing them for green energy. And we need a honest, forceful agreement in Copenhagen to commit the world to making changes that will cause real reduction in carbon emissions over the next 20 years.
That's why President Obama should circle his calendar now, and keep open the date of Monday, Dec. 7. He, and other world leaders, should plan to be in Copenhagen that day for the highest-stakes environmental negotiations in history. No more delays. It's time for action. The alternative is a planet that may no longer support life as we know it within a generation.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for
nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade
Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For extra added
thrills, read his ongoing daily blog on The Harvard Classics at