ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday November 4, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 23
Columns - Thoughts from London  

Mankind’s plunge to disaster- myth or reality?

By Neville de Silva

If the rich western nations persist with their present lifestyle the world’s current population will need three planets to live in. Sadly, we have only one planet and how we live in that will determine not only the future of human kind but the plant and animal life on which we depend. That is the stark reality painted by David Nussbaum, the chief executive of the World Wildlife Fund, UK, at the discussion that followed the launch of the UNEP’s voluminous Global Environment Report GEO-4 late last month. Nussbaum’s gloomy predictions were echoed by several-scientists, academics, think-tanks and others in the forefront of the battle to save the environment from the degradation they say will have severe repercussions on life even in the next 15-20 years.

The UNEP’s report comes hard on the heels of the Nobel Peace Prize jointly awarded to Al Gore and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and 20 years after the World Commission on Environment and Development (popularly known as the Brundtland Commission after the former Norwegian prime minister who chaired it) produced its seminal work “Our Common Future.”By awarding the Peace Prize to Al Gore and the IPCC, in which Sri Lanka’s Professor Mohan Munasinghe is vice-chairman, the Nobel Committee makes an important point. Climate change, and particularly global warming, is not just a threat to our environment. It is also a threat to international security which is an issue that is taken up quite clearly in GEO-4 which sees more conflict in the world arising due to conflict over depleting, and in some cases finite resources.

A giant sphere representing the earth is on display during the press preview of “Water H20=Life” exhibit Oct. 30, 2007 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The exhibit that opened on Saturday is all about this most precious resource -its impact on the earth's environment, its impact on us, how we use it (wisely and not) and what we can do to make sure there's enough of it. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Already we have seen conflicts as a result of drought and oil and it is felt that future conflicts could result over water and arable land, among others.

It is this fear of inter-state and intra-state conflicts erupting in one region or the other that makes this particular peace award significant. Previously, the peace prize has been awarded to those who had brought about an end to conflict, steered through a peace process or had immersed themselves in trying to achieve peace. This time it is not so. The award is in recognition of work done to avert a threat to peace. This is work done by Al Gore and the IPCC to alert the world and its political leaderships to the dangers that lie ahead if they do not act now, and act quickly to stop us hurtling perilously towards ecological disaster.

When Commonwealth heads of government meet at their summit later this month in Kampala, climate change will be very high on their agenda, particularly after Commonwealth finance ministers’ meeting in Georgetown Guyana last month devoted much time to the issue, as underlined by secretary-general Don McKinnon when he invited us for lunch last week to talk about this month’s CHOGM. Moreover, the heads of government will have had the important work done by the inter-government panel and the 500-paged report of the UNEP that was launched last month.

The problem is that overall, political leaderships have been lackadaisical, if not lax, in paying attention to the increasingly critical scientific evidence and reports that indicate the enormous economic costs to their respective countries if prompt attention in terms of policy and action, is not paid to combat climate change.

At the discussions that followed the launch of GEO-4 in London, speaker after speaker criticised governments and political leaders for paying scant attention to the mounting evidence that showed that unless action is taken now disastrous consequences would follow. Since the Brundtland Commission report 20 years ago the international response in some instances has been inspiring in the words of Achim Steiner, the UNEP’s executive director.

“But all too often (the response) has been slow and at a pace and scale that fails to respond to or recognise the magnitude of the challenges facing the people and the environment of the planet,” Steiner said. “The systematic destruction of the Earth’s natural and nature-based resources has reached a point where the economic viability of economies is being challenged-and where the bill we hand to our children may prove impossible to pay.”

GEO-4 researched and drafted by some 400 scientists whose findings were reviewed by another 1000 of their peers took five years to write. If all this evidence including last year’s Nicholas Stern report, does not galvanise governments into action one reason is that political leaders are driven by big business which have their own agendas, as pointed out by a former British environment minister Michael Meacher.

That, of course, is not the only reason. There are sceptics in the scientific community as well as outside it who strongly dispute that climate change is largely man-made. They argue that such change, like melting ice caps, rising temperatures, droughts and floods are cyclical and rely on historical evidence to underline their case.

Earlier this year I heard Frederick Forsyth, the well- known writer, said during a “Question Time” programme that he did not believe in the theories being peddled by some scientists and academics that man is intrinsically responsible for climate change. There have been others too who dismiss the idea of mankind creating catastrophic conditions. A few days before the launch of the UNEP report an academic David Bellamy wrote to The Times, London saying he would prefer to be called a heretic on climate change because he does not share the doomsday scenarios painted by sections of the scientific/academic community.

If I quote Bellamy “in extensor” it is because the other side of this debate has naturally not received as much media and public airing as the more scary portrayal presented by a substantial section of the scientific and academic community and the NGOs devoted to saving the planet from ourselves. Bellamy argues that the Met Office’s Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction has come up against an “inconvenient truth.” Its research shows that since 1998 the average temperature of the planet has not risen, even though the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has continued to increase. He says that the last peak global temperatures were in 1998 and 1934 and the troughs of low temperature were around 1910 and 1970.

“The second dip caused pop science and the media to cry wolf about an impending devastating Ice Age. Our end was nigh!” “Then when temperatures took an upward swing in the 1980s the scaremongers changed their tune. Global warming was the new imminent catastrophe.”

“But the computer model-called “hockey stick”- that predicted the catastrophe of a frying planet proved to be so bent that it “disappeared” from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s armoury of argument in 2007. It was bent because the historical data it used to predict the future dated from only the 1850s when the world was emerging from the Little Ice Age. Little wonder that temperatures showed an upward trend.” This is just part of Bellamy’s argument. There are others such as Christopher Monckton, now Viscount Monckton, who are challenging the Al Gore film “An Inconvenient Truth” with one of their own called “The Great Global Warming Swindle.”

Ultimately this is a cerebral issue and best left to experts to debate. We as journalists could only be peripheral witnesses without sticking our oar if we lack the expertise required to make judgmental pronouncements.

While it is true that a substantial majority of scientists and experts seem to find humankind culpable of most of the damage to the environment, the media must not only present both sides of the debate but also probe whether interested parties are fuelling the controversy in pursuit of their own agendas as often happens in other fields too.

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