Monday, November 28, 2011

The Elephant in the conference room

Last month, demographers from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) released a report which estimates the population of the world now exceeds 7,000,000,000 people. This is a critical context for any solution or remedy to anthropogenic climate change. 

The fundamental challenge of climate change is that traditional means of social and economic development reinforce the release of greenhouse gas emissions leading to global warming trends and changes in local and regional climatic conditions.  It is a Catch-22.  The more people there are in the world and the more they are raised from poverty the worse the climate crisis becomes.

In recent months there have been a number of reports released by major scientific organizations documenting that things might just be a little worse than we thought.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report linking some of the extreme weather events experienced worldwide in recent decades to changing climate trends.  The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) last week has documented that the gap between governmental pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions and the actual reductions needed to avoid dangerous levels of warming is growing.  Similarly, the International Energy Agency (IEA) concluded that if significant action is not taken to reduce atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, climate changes will effectively be irreversible in five years. 

Simply put, the mechanical problems driving climate change are worse than we thought.  The longer it takes to resolve this problem the more technically challenging it will become. 

As representatives of 194 countries converge for the next two weeks on Durban, South Africa its worth remembering that the reasons climate change has been irresolvable up to this point go beyond the technical challenges of reducing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.  The politics of growth, poverty, economic advantage and geographic borders, more than anything, have made climate change a social problem as much as a scientific or technical problem.

We are now at seven billion people and counting. The longer we wait to solve this problem, the higher the social costs and pressures will be.  

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