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A call to collective action

by Hermann E. Ott
We are running out of time. Unless greenhouse gas emissions are reduced fast, global warming will severely harm everyone and everything. But instead of rising to the challenges, governments are thinking only in terms of give and take. [ By Hermann E. Ott ]

“At this rate, we’re unlikely to get an ambitious agreement in Copenhagen, one that will be able to tackle climate change adequately.” This was the accurate assessment of Shyan Saran, the head of India’s delegation, close to the end of the climate talks held in Bonn in June. The outlook for the crucial Copenhagen summit in December is indeed disappointing.

Basically, all parties keep reiterating what they have been saying for a long time. At this point, the chance of a Copenhagen agreement that helps humanity to rise to the challenges is below 20 %. Governments are stuck in the logic of zero-sum games: whenever one side gains anything, another one must have lost something.

This is no way to deal with climate issues. Imagine a forest fire approaching a small settlement. Unless the people there act immediately, their homes will burn down. But instead of watering the trees in their vicinity, they argue. Whose fault is the fire? Who can fund protective measures? Who’s turn is it to serve the community? The tragedy of such lengthy debate is that the homes will burn down, no matter how this is eventually decided.

Humankind is running out of time. Unless carbon emissions are reduced drastically and fast, severe damages will affect all nations. Global warming will have an impact on agriculture and food supplies, on the spread of diseases and the viability of industries, on migration and international security. The metaphor of a burning home is appropriate.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommends emission reductions of at least 25 % (in respect to the levels of 1990) by 2020, stressing that, to be on the safe side, it would be better to get close to 40 %. By 2050, global emissions must be cut to roughly 20 % of today’s level. Right now, the rich nations are emitting 50 % of global emissions, and the poor world is emitting the other half. Cooperation is the only way to rise to such daunting challenges.

The world does not need conventional diplomacy in give-and-take terms in view of immediate danger. Collective action is the order of the day. Unless all parties cooperate, all will lose. All governments must wake up to the fact that whether they are right or wrong is not the most urgent question. Unless action is taken fast, their people will suffer. Those governments that move first, moreover, are best placed to urge others to act too. And they will gain a big advantage in an oil-constrained future.

That said, the most powerful and potent countries can – and obviously must – do most to overcome the current stalemate. The members of the OECD should commit to substantial reductions of greenhouse gases and substantial financial support to help the developing world fight climate change and cope with its already inevitable consequences.

The less advantaged countries, however, can also boost the chances of a meaningful deal in Copenhagen. For instance, they should agree on the size of the financial support they need for mitigation and adaptation. Moreover, some very large countries, like China, India, Brazil and South Africa, should accept the fact that they cannot pursue business-as-usual strategies. By committing to (sectoral) reduction targets, they should put pressure on rich-nation governments.

The talks, so far, have focused on who is to pay. In view of the global financial crisis, governments have mobilised incredible sums. However, some leaders are slowing down on the climate agenda in the hope of securing jobs in established industries. That expectation is completely misguided. The physics of climate change is not up for negotiation. Industries that heat up the earth’s biosphere cannot provide sustainable jobs. On the other hand, a smart agreement to invest in reducing carbon emissions, remodelling infrastructures and building a better future would jump-start the global economy.

What the world needs now is leadership. Heads of state and government must rise to the challenges.