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Issue 54, March 2001

A Tale of Two Conferences

THIS JANUARY scientists from around the world met to consider the evidence for changes to the world's climate due to human actions. They decided that the evidence 'should sound alarm bells in every national capital and every local community'.

Another conference, in the Hague in November 2000, discussed what to do about climate change. It decided to do nothing. This meeting was made up of politicians representing the pro-capitalist governments of the world, and was heavily lobbied by big business.

Climate change is caused by the growing level of certain gases in the earth's atmosphere that increase the amount of heat held in. The most important of these gases is carbon dioxide (CO2) which is produced when carbon fuels (mainly coal, oil and gas) are burnt. The industrialisation of the last 250 years has been based on burning these fossil fuels and has released growing amounts of CO2. The level of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased by one third since 1750 and is at the highest level for at least 420,000 years and probably for at least 20 million years.

This increased climate change, or global warming, is shown by the 1990s being the warmest decade, and 1998 the warmest year, at least since records began. By examining evidence from tree rings, ice cores and other sources about the climate of the past, scientists believe that temperatures have risen more in the last 100 years than at any time in the last 1,000. Already, the volume of summer ice in the Arctic has declined by nearly 50%. All over the world glaciers are retreating. Sea levels have risen in the last century. All the evidence suggests that climate change due to human action is already well under way.


But what should really set the alarm bells ringing is the expected changes in the future. The conference in January concluded that across the world average temperatures will increase by between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees. These changes will lead to increased storms and floods in some places, droughts in others, and the geographical spread of diseases such as malaria. Another concern is that the El Nino, a change in weather patterns in the Pacific ocean that can cause storms, floods, and droughts with world-wide effects, will become more frequent. Already there is evidence that it is occurring more regularly, with its last occurrence in 1998 causing the deaths of thousands of people and at least $89 billion of damage.

Sea levels will also rise, possibly by nearly a metre, which will increase the risk of flooding around the world. Most of the world's large cities are on the coast and will be at risk from higher sea levels and greater storms. Some of the islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans could disappear beneath the waves as well as large parts of Bangladesh and the land at river mouths such as the Nile. Yet the politicians at the Hague conference came to no agreement.

At the Kyoto climate conference in 1997, scientists called for a 60% cut in CO2 releases. The eventual outcome was agreement to a 5% cut. But this target has not been reached and CO2 releases have increased.

Big business and their tame governments are reluctant to cut the use of fossil fuels. Many of the biggest companies in the world are based on fossil fuels, including the automobile industry, both building cars and constructing roads, the airline industry, and the oil producers themselves. A cut in the use of fossil fuels threatens their profits.


The USA in particular is hooked on fossil fuels. Gasoline is cheaper than bottled water. With 4% of world's population it is responsible for 25% of the CO2 emissions while the whole of Africa, with 13% of the world's population, is responsible for only 3% of the CO2. The response of newly-elected President Bush to the energy crisis in California, with power blackouts, shows the short-term view of the government. The crisis is due to the deregulation of the electricity companies and the failure to change to energy saving policies. Bush's response is to ignore all that and instead to lift all the air pollution controls on electricity generation, allowing the release of dangerous chemicals. He is also planning to allow the extraction of oil, with inevitable environmental damage, in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He has previously stated that oil can be extracted in an 'environmentally sensitive' manner, in spite of the long history of disasters such as the wrecking of the Exxon Valdez. Bush is closely linked to the energy industry and, rather than tackle the root problems, he wants to keep feeding the fossil fuel junkies.

One of the few sections of big business who take the risks of climate change seriously is insurance. Already they face mounting claims and one of the largest re-insurance companies, Munich-Re, expects insurance claims due to climate to increase by $300 billion a year in the next 50 years.

Yet many of the ways to cut the use of fossil fuels are already available. Increasing the efficiency of the use of energy would make a huge difference as at present most energy is wasted. A change in transport from private cars to public transport, and from trucks and aeroplanes to boats and rail, would make a huge difference. The use of more renewable energy sources such as wind, water, and the sun, would cut the use of fossil fuels. But governments and business are not prepared to invest the money needed to make the changes.


At the Hague conference the main debates weren't even about cutting the use of fossil fuels. Instead what the politicians argued about was how to avoid cutting fossil fuel use. They discussed schemes to trade permits to release CO2, so that countries which have cut their release of CO2, especially Russia due to a large-scale closure of industry, could sell permits to fossil fuel burners like the USA. Another scheme is to plant lots of tress to absorb CO2. Already some companies are leasing or buying up cheap land, mainly in Africa, to cultivate fast-growing and water-hungry trees. These schemes usually mean driving local people off their land and giving over control to some multi-national company, a form of modern colonialism. But this policy at best has only a very short-term impact as the trees only hold the CO2 while they are alive. When they die and rot, or when cut and burnt, the CO2 is released.

Changes to reduce the release of CO2 would also have many other benefits, including the preservation of oil, coal and gas, which are valuable resources for making many products. It took millions of years to produce the world's coal, oil and gas reserves and there is a risk of burning them all in few short centuries. More public transport would be better for health and the life of cities, as well as reducing pollution and accidents.

The failure of governments and business to act on climate change is due to their dedication to private profit, and also a very short-term view of issues. In the long term, climate change will cost many people their lives, make many more people's lives more difficult, and cost hundreds of billions of dollars. But for most business that is tomorrow's problem and they hope it won't come out of their profits. Yet again capitalism shows it is not interested in the well-being of people. Climate change is one more reason for political change - for socialist policies.

Bill Hopwood

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