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Editorial

Smallish and insufficient

by Hans Dembowski
Pakistani flood victims

Pakistani flood victims

The impact of global warming is already proving painful. The international implications of the natural disasters wreaking havoc in Russia and Pakistan this summer were so massive that rain-induced landslides in China or flooding in eastern Germany and Poland looked normal in comparison. Russian fires and Pakistani floods proved that local difficulties can have fast global repercussions in the age of climate change.

Let’s look at the Russian scenario first: Wildfires raging in the wake of unusual heat and drought, authorities failing to bring the flames under control, Moscow engulfed by a thick blanket of smog. So many fields are ablaze that the government feels compelled to ban wheat exports, and grain prices soar immediately on the world market. Experts warn that the next global food crisis is looming large should the harvest in just one more major ­grain-exporting nation prove disappointing. Of course, no one can tell what the weather will be like at harvest time in Argentina or Australia.

Now consider Pakistan’s drama: Large parts of the country are under water after heavier-than-usual monsoon rains. Some 20 million people are driven from their homes. The risk of epidemics is increasing by the day. The government says it will need $ 15 billion for reconstruction – but it enjoys little trust in Pakistan itself and among charitable people all over the world. So UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon assumes the role of fund-raiser-in-chief, and NATO promises logistical support. At the same time, defence experts warn that radical Islamists are using the floods to win hearts and minds by delivering help to people who are disappointed in the government.

Yes, we are feeling the impact of climate change. The crises in Russia and Pakistan both started with cases of extreme weather. Sceptics will still say that all this is due to chance and no proof of global warming. But they ignore climate researchers, who have been stating for many years that global warming will manifest itself first in increasingly frequent occurrences of extreme weather. Leading researchers, moreover, predict that 2010 will be the year with the highest average temperatures on record.

Humankind is obviously heading for danger, and current media coverage is increasingly marked by this fact (see, for instance, the Debate section in this D+C issue). We know that climate change affects poor countries in particular. It is obvious that countries with weak governance must suffer more than others when disasters strike. And it is well understood that it will become ever harder to fight poverty and more difficult to build capable institutions of governance if extreme weather causes ever more trouble.

The rich nations – less prone to crisis thanks to their stronger capacities – have little reason to gloat about their superior institutions. Historically, they are the ones who have caused climate change. The billion people that live in the rich world, moreover, have been all too slow to adopt the more environment-friendly energy system that is needed. It is a farce that emerging markets are now vigorously following the industrial world's bad example in a made race to heat up our planet.

The articles in our focus section show that humanity has means to tackle this global crisis. Depressingly, the policies in place and the mechanisms being tested are smallish and insufficient compared with the urgent need for action that became evident in the unfolding disasters of this summer.