World Dying, But Can We
Unite To Save It?
By Geoffrey Lean
19 November, 2007
Humanity is rapidly turning the
seas acid through the same pollution that causes global warming, the
world’s governments and top scientists agreed yesterday. The process
— thought to be the most profound change in the chemistry of the
oceans for 20 million years — is expected both to disrupt the
entire web of life of the oceans and to make climate change worse.
The warning is just one of
a whole series of alarming conclusions in a new report published by
the official Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which
last month shared the Nobel Peace Prize with former US vice president
Drawn up by more than 2,500
of the world’s top scientists and their governments, and agreed
last week by representatives of all its national governments, the report
also predicts that nearly a third of the world’s species could
be driven to extinction as the world warms up, and that harvests will
be cut dramatically across the world.
United Nations Secretary-General
Ban Ki-moon, who attended the launch of the report in this ancient Spanish
city, told The Independent on Sunday that he found the “quickening
pace” of global warming “very frightening”.
And, with unusual outspokenness
for a UN leader, he said he “looked forward” to both the
United States and China — the world’s two biggest polluters
— “playing a more constructive role” in vital new
negotiations on tackling climate change that open in Indonesia next
The new IPCC report, which
is designed to give impetus to the negotiations, highlights the little-known
acidification of the oceans, first reported in this newspaper more than
three years ago. It concludes that emissions of carbon dioxide —
the main cause of global warming — have already increased the
acidity of ocean surface water by 30 per cent, and threaten to treble
it by the end of the century.
Achim Steiner, the executive
director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), said yesterday:
“The report has put a spotlight on a threat to the marine environment
that the world has hardly yet realized. The threat is immense as it
can fundamentally alter the life of the seas, reducing the productivity
of the oceans, while reinforcing global warming.”
Scientists have found that
the seas have already absorbed about half of all the carbon dioxide
emitted by humanity since the start of the industrial revolution, a
staggering 500 billion tons of it. This has so far helped slow global
warming — which would have accelerated even faster if all this
pollution had stayed in the atmosphere, already causing catastrophe
— but at an increasingly severe cost.
The gas dissolves in the
oceans to make dilute carbonic acid, which is increasingly souring the
naturally alkali seawater. This, in turn, mops up calcium carbonate,
a substance normally plentiful in the seas, which corals use to build
their reefs, and marine creatures use to make the protective shells
they need to survive. These include many of the plankton that form the
base of the food chain on which all fish and other marine animals depend.
As the waters are growing
more acid this process is decreasing, with incalculable consequences
for the life of the seas, and for the fisheries on which a billion of
the world’s people depend for protein. Every single species that
uses calcium in this way, that has so far been studied, has been found
to be affected. And the seas are most acid near the surface, where most
of their life is concentrated.
A report by the Royal Society,
Britain’s premier scientific body, concludes that, as a result,
of the pollution, the world’s oceans are probably now more acidic
that they have ever been in “hundreds of millennia”, and
that even if emissions stopped now, the waters would take “tens
of thousands of years to return to normal”.
Professor Ulf Reibesell of
the Leibnitz Institute of Marine Sciences in Kiel, Germany’s leading
expert on the process, concludes in an issue of UNEP’s magazine
Our Planet, to be published next month, that, if it continues to the
levels predicted by yesterday’s report for the end of the century,
the seas will reach a condition unprecedented in the last 20 million
He recalls how something
similar happened when a comet hit Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula 65
million years ago, blasting massive amounts of calcium sulphate into
the atmosphere to form sulphuric acid, which in turn caused the extinction
of corals and virtually all shell-building species.
“Two million years
went by before corals reappeared in the fossil record,” he says,
adding that it took “a further 20 million years” before
the diversity of species that use calcium returned to its former levels.
Scientists add that, as the
seas become more acidic, they will be less able to absorb carbon dioxide,
causing more of it to stay in the atmosphere to speed up global warming.
Research is already uncovering some signs that the oceans’ ability
to mop up the gas is diminishing. Environmentalists point out that the
increasing acidification of the oceans would in itself provide ample
reason to curb emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels
and felling forests even if the dwindling band of skeptics were right
and the gas was not warming up the planet.
But yesterday’s cautiously
worded report, which was agreed by the US government, also provides
ample evidence that climate change is well under way, and is accelerating.
It concludes that the warming is now “unequivocal” and “evident
from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures,
widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level”.
It adds: “Eleven of
the last 12 years rank among the 12 warmest years in the instrumental
record of global surface temperature”. It goes on: “Observational
evidence from all continents and most oceans shows that many natural
systems are being affected by regional climate changes, particularly
If humanity were not affecting
the climate, it concludes, declines in the sun’s activity and
increased eruptions from volcanoes - which throw huge amounts of dust
in the air that screen out sunlight - would have been likely to “have
produced cooling” of the planet.
But emissions of all the
“greenhouse gas” pollutants that cause global warming increased
70 per cent between 1970 and 2004 alone, it reports, adding that levels
of carbon dioxide, the most important one, in the atmosphere now “exceed
by far” anything that the Earth has experienced in the past 650,000
years. And it goes on to conclude that “continued greenhouse gas
emissions at or above current rates would cause further warming and
induce many changes in the global climate system during the 21st century.”
It makes a host of specific
predictions for every continent and warns that “impacts”
could be “abrupt” or “irreversible”. One example
of an irreversible impact is an expected extinction of between 20 and
30 per cent of all the world’s species of animals and plants even
at relatively moderate levels of warming. If the climate heats further,
it adds, extinctions could rise to 40 to 70 per cent of species.
The IPCC scientists and governments
say that they are also more concerned about “increases in droughts,
heatwaves and floods” as the climate warms. They believe that
the damage to the world’s economy would be even greater than they
had previously predicted, and were even more certain that the poor and
elderly in both rich and poor countries would suffer most.
Yet the report also concludes
that, while some climate change is now inevitable, its worst effects
could be avoided with straightforward measures at little cost if only
governments would take action. It says that the job can be done by using
“technologies that are either currently available or expected
to be commercialized in coming decades”. It could be done at a
cost of slowing global growth by only a tenth of a percentage point
a year, and might even increase it.
The missing element, virtually
everyone agrees, is political will from governments. Next month they
meet in Bali to start negotiations on a new treaty to replace the current
provisions of the Kyoto Protocol, which run out in 2012.
The timetable is desperately
tight; time lags in the process of getting a new treaty ratified by
the world’s governments means that it will have to be agreed by
the end of 2009 — and there is no sign of anything on the horizon.
Yet the treaty will have
to go far beyond the protocol in order to put the whole world on track
rapidly to reduce emissions if the world is to achieve the pollution
cuts that the scientists say will be needed to avoid catastrophe. And
it will have to ensure rapid action. Dr Rajendra Pachauri, the IPCC’s
chairman, yesterday repeated a consensus among experts that the world
as a whole will have to start radical reductions within eight years
if there is to be any hope of preventing dangerous climate change.
Stephanie Tunmore of Greenpeace
International said: “It is clear from this report that we are
gambling with the future of the planet — and the stakes are high.
This document sets out a compelling case for early action on climate
The UN Secretary-General,
agreed. The effects of climate change have become “so severe and
so sweeping” he said “that only urgent, global action will
do. There is no time to waste.”
Mr Steiner called the report
“the most essential reading for every person on the planet who
cares about the future”. He added: “The hard science has
been distilled along with evidence of the social and economic consequences
of global warming, but also the economic rationale and opportunities
for action now. While the science will continue to evolve and be refined,
we now have the compelling blueprint for action and, in many ways, the
price tag for failure — from increasing acidification of the oceans
to the likely extinction of economically important biodiversity.”
And Yvo de Boer, the executive
secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change — the
parent treaty to the Kyoto Protocol — told the IoS that reaching
agreement was “incredibly urgent”.
He pointed out that the world
would replace 40 per cent of its power generation capacity in the next
five to 10 years and that China is already building one or two coal-
fired power stations a week. Those installations would last for decades
- and the nations that built them would be reluctant to demolish them
any earlier - so that unless the world rapidly changed direction it
would be all the more difficult to avoid climate change running out
Sticking point: It is crucial
to get the US and China on board
Getting agreement on a new
treaty to tackle climate change hangs on resolving an “after you,
Claude” impasse between the United States and China, the two biggest
emitters of carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming.
China insists - with other
key developing countries like India and South Africa — that the
United States must move first to clean up. It points out that, because
of the disparity in populations, every American is responsible for emitting
much more of the gas than each Chinese. But the US refuses to join any
new treaty unless China also accepts restrictions.
There is hope of breaking
the logjam. Chinese leaders know their country would be severely affected
by global warming, and have done more than is generally realized to
tackle it, not least by rapidly expanding renewable energy. The US will
have a new leader by the time negotiations are completed, and even President
Bush is backtracking, at least rhetorically.
Yesterday UN Secretary-General
Ban Ki-Moon said he was optimistic. “I look forward,” he
said, with a hint of steel, “to seeing the United States and China
playing a more constructive role in the coming negotiations.”
Greenland ice sheet will
virtually completely disappear, raising sea levels by over 30 feet,
submerging coastal cities, entire island nations and vast areas of low-lying
countries like Bangladesh
The Amazon rainforest will
become dry savannah as rising temperatures and falling water levels
kill the trees, stoke forest fires and kill off wildlife
California and the grain-producing
Midwest will dry out as snows in the Rockies decrease, depriving these
areas of summer water
The Great Barrier Reef will
die. Species loss will occur by 2020 as corals fail to adapt to warmer
waters. On land, drought will reduce harvests
Winter sports suffer as less
snow falls in the Alps and other mountains; up to three-fifths of wildlife
dies out. Drought in Mediterranean area hits tourism
Harvests could be cut by
up to half in some countries by 2020, greatly increasing the threat
of famine. Between 75 million and 250 million people are expected to
be short of water within the next 30 years
© 2007 Independent News
and Media Limited
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