“Climate Is Changing: Stories, Facts and People”

A report on the 2009 Greenaccord Conference

VITERBO, ITALY – “To do nothing is fatal.” That was the stark message of one speaker at the VII International Media Forum on the Protection of Nature, held during the last week of November in advance of world leaders gathering in Copenhagen to seek an agreement on curbing greenhouse gas emissions. The figures on how rapidly the earth’s climate is changing were more alarming than ever before. At the same time, new ideas on how to achieve a much-needed societal transition were not only thought-provoking but often inspiring.

Of the three conferences sponsored by Greenaccord that I have attended (see 2005), annually bringing together environmental journalists from around the world, this one carried a sense of intense urgency through all five days. Ten “climate witnesses,” coming from the Himalayas, India, Africa, and other regions, offered testimony that left no doubt about the devastating impacts already being felt. The lingering question was whether action to shift away from carbon-based fuels can happen quickly enough to avoid a chaotic, anarchic planetary future – one that could see as many as two billion climate refugees as sea levels rise, glaciers melt away, flooding and droughts accelerate.

The last time the polar regions of earth were significantly warmer than today for an extended period was 125,000 years ago. Should we not curb emissions fast enough and see a rise of six degrees Centigrade over the course of the 21st-century, as a group of scientists recently projected, this would be a temperature rise not seen for about 100 million years. A hundred million years….

Brian Fagan, a Professor of Anthropology at the University of California/Santa Barbara, offered a climatological history lesson. He described a medieval warm period from 800 to 1250 AD, during which 1.5 million people died of famine in a single year (1315). In the Sierra Nevada range of an American West where small hunting bands yet predominated, tree rings offer evidence of prolonged droughts lasting for decades and even centuries.

The lesson of this medieval era was this: “The silent elephant in the room is drought.” A rising population (globally, it now stands at 6.9 billion people, with 79 million more being added each year) and urbanism have increased our vulnerability to both short- and long-term climatic changes. “We have seen a 25 percent increase in global drought since 1990,” Fagan said. “Within this century, one-half of humanity will be impacted….We are moving into a future where water is more expensive than oil.” In the face of such a reality, he wondered, why do we still “invest enormous amounts on thirsty golf courses?” Or insist on having a lawn if you’re living in a desert (for example, Arizona).

Drought is already spreading fast – an epic dry period plaguing much of Australia, and being felt in the Mediterranean and Southwestern U.S. According to Professor Joellen Russell, Assistant Professor of Geosciences at the University of Arizona, these droughts are directly linked to what’s happening in Antarctica. The Antarctic circumpolar current, almost four times bigger than the Gulf Stream and largest current on the planet, wraps around Antarctica. There the warming of the Southern Ocean has been dramatic. As the lower atmosphere (the troposphere) warms, the stratosphere cools – and changes the westerly winds, causing them to contract in both hemispheres and get closer to the poles rather than the equator.

“The modern westerlies have moved from 45 degrees of latitude in the 1960s to 53 degrees latitude now,” Russell said. “These are our water delivery systems. So in Arizona, our water is starting to move to Oregon or further north. In the Mediterranean, it will go to Scandinavia; in Australia, out over the deep Southern Ocean.”

The scientist made a plea for faster action. “Take your kids to see the Great Barrier Reef, because in 20 years there isn’t going to be one. If we don’t do something now, we choose to live with the consequences.”

Janet Larsen, from the Earth Policy Institute (a Washington, D.C. think-tank), pointed out that the economic crisis has actually resulted in “some good news.” In the past year, worldwide greenhouse gas emissions fell by three percent – three-quarters of that attributable to the recession, the rest from better energy-efficiency. In the U.S., carbon emissions decreased 9 percent during the last two years – even without standards that would take effect in new federal legislation. A recent directive by the European Union declared that, after 2020, all new homes are to be powered by renewable sources. But, as Larsen said, “This can happen much more quickly. The world does not have a great strategy.”

The Institute’s Lester Brown has put together a “Plan B 4.0, Mobilization to Save Civilization” (available for free download at www.earthpolicy.org) – calling for cutting greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2020. They’ve crunched the numbers on energy efficiency: “If we switched to compact fluorescents everywhere, we could close more than 700 of the world’s 2,400 coal plants.” The plan’s goal calls for building 1.5 million wind turbines and producing 3 million gigawatts of energy from wind within the next decade. China, already “moving incredibly fast with wind-based programs,” also has 29 million homes with solar water heaters on the rooftops. Solar photovoltaic capacity globally is now doubling every two years. Algeria is planning to send 6,000 megawatts of solar “desert technology” via undersea cables from North Africa to Europe. The institute’s Plan B also recommends a tax on carbon rising from $20 to $200-a-ton by 2020.

In the U.S., the petroleum “capital” of Texas is now also number one in wind generation. Lester Brown looks back at World War Two as the example, when America ceased car production entirely, turned toy factories to making compasses and completely restructured the economy in a matter of months. “Do we have to wait for a Pearl Harbor?” Larsen wondered. “The costs of averting climate change are miniscule compared to letting it spin out of control. But we are in a race between the tipping points in our natural system versus our political system. Will the growing movement to close coal-fired plants happen fast enough? Or stopping deforestation in the Amazon?” (Another speaker noted that 30 percent of the increase in carbon emissions is a result of deforestation).

Professor Stefano Zamagni, an expert in social economics from the University of Bologna, provided a fascinating overview of why existing approaches aren’t working – and what might be implemented instead. The Kyoto Protocol, the first attempt to address climate change, operated under the long-standing political model of efficiency and utilitarianism. But, over the last ten or fifteen years, the idea of inter-generational equitability has been coming to the fore, the realization that “the problem of environment cannot be separated from that of hunger or poverty.” Thus, “efficient” ideas like cap-and-trade, using the marketplace to reduce emissions as cost-effectively as possible, have no applicability to developing countries. Zamagni called rather for a concept of environmental integrity, by which the West would transfer renewable technologies to developing nations.

“The market in itself cannot solve the problem, so some say the state must. But even the state is unable, not because the rulers are bad, but because the pattern of democracy today is the elitist, competitive model.” Politics is necessarily about the short-term – “a ruler’s time horizon is about five years, the duration of election cycles” – which leaves little room for considering long-term environmental issues.

To seriously face the climate situation, we need to “innovate democratic ideas.” Zamagni said we should “summon ‘popular courts’ or deliberative forums, strategy plans made by forums of citizens, not regulatory bodies.” The economist cited examples in Europe where these kinds of ideas are starting to come to fruition. France passed a law in 2007 on proximity-based democracy. Tuscany is the first Italian region to approve a regional law on deliberative democracy.

Simultaneously, he called for creating a World Organization for the Environment under the auspices of the United Nations – a global authority not only to draw up agreements, but able to place sanctions on nations that refuse to comply with these. It is “indispensable,” Zamagni believes, for nation-states to “transfer some power to an international agency which does not depend on the political moment. This would also solve the equitability problem, in the role of umpire between the stronger countries and the weaker ones.”

To him, it all centered around reconceptualizing what freedom means. Formerly, we had freedom from – hunger, ignorance – and freedom to choose (“the 20th-century’s greatest gift”). A third dimension now is freedom for – in service to something or someone. Zamagni called on the NGO’s – there are 3,000-some around the world – to mobilize and find cooperation with one another. Why not a second General Assembly at the United Nations, “to represent civil society, the bearers of culture?” After all, why does Parliament or Congress have two houses, and the U.N. just one?

A grassroots movement has begun, especially in Europe and the U.S. It’s going to require what Erik Assadourian of Washington’s Worldwatch Institute called an essential “transformation of cultures.” Simply “swapping out old technologies for new and taxing carbon won’t get us where we need to go,” as he put it. “The question is how to design society so it is consuming a lot less.”

Assadourian described the consumer culture that’s come to dominate the globe in recent times. In 2008, a full one percent of the world’s GDP – $643 billion – was spent on advertising, predominantly to get people to buy more products. This has evolved since the 1920s, when automobile advertising first started instructing children to stay out of the streets and new words like “jaywalking” soon came into the language. The fast-food industry, a product of the auto culture, followed a similar pattern. (McDonald’s now spends $1.2 billion on ads every year).

Assadourian delineated several major areas to begin re-orienting the culture. First, by way of education, for example the children of one town in Italy having eliminated the school bus by walking to school as a group. (2) Redefining business, from the profit motive to one of improving the quality of society (e.g., Galactic Pizza makes everything from locally-grown products, delivered by electric vehicles). (3) Moving the role of government away from economic growth paramount (Ecuador has incorporated Earth Rights into its 2008 constitution, whereby a citizen can now take an oil company to court for polluting their land). (4) Social movements like Eco-Villages, Slow Food, Voluntary Simplicity, and the U.S. Take Back Your Time effort. (5) Traditions: rather than leaving guidance to policy-makers, looking upon elders as guides and sources of wisdom.

The Internet allows “social marketing” in a way that never existed before. Assadourian cited the movie “Meatrix,” which four million people have now watched on-line. Also an art piece (“Gyre” by Chris Jordan), created from 2.4 million pieces of plastic, the same amount that goes into our oceans every hour. “Consumerism has been driven by many forces over the decades,” said Assadourian. “Now we need cultural pioneers.” (A PDF of his book-length report is available at: blogs.worldwatch.org/transformingcultures/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/SOW2010-PreviewVersion.pdf.)

The science is indisputable; we know the score and what’s at stake. So what’s ultimately keeping the imperative technological, political and cultural transformations from happening? Dr. William Rees, a biologist from the University of British Columbia and originator of the “carbon footprint” concept, spoke of how the human brain is “uniquely capable of planning ahead and exercising moral judgment. Yet we are over-ridden by the innate instincts beneath consciousness, where safety or ‘survival’ are concerned. It is a shared illusion – perpetual growth and technological progress is our modern myth. So we must tell lies to each other to avoid confronting reality.”

In fact, said Rees, what we take to be normal is actually the greatest abnormal period in the history of the human species. Only since 1950 has economic growth been viewed as the be-all, end-all. Sometime in the mid-1980s, we passed the long-term carrying capacity of the planet and have been since drawing down our accumulated stocks with our forests and fishes. The human eco-footprint now exceeds that capacity by 25 to 30 percent. Our “carbon sinks” that formerly accumulated the greenhouse gases (forests and oceans) have been overwhelmed, such that C02 is increasing super-exponentially. Draconian reductions – nothing less than a planned economic recession – will avert catastrophe.

What we are seeing, according to Rees, is eco-apartheid: “the segregation of people along ecological gradients as a factor of wealth. The rich live in the best habitats; the poor inhabit the most depressed urban and rural areas….and are being kicked from the lifeboats. Globalization is now the legal means to do that. It is a moral question of huge dimension – there can be no further excuse if we are conscious of the fact we are making deliberate choices to do violence to other people.” Sea level rise will permanently displace 5 percent of the globe by flooding; an estimated 300,000 deaths a year are already due to weather and climate-related events, mostly in the developing world.

While we have the technology to redistribute income and enable a 75 to 80% reduction in energy, it’s not happening. “We are now engaged in a competitive struggle not to do anything. It is a situation where scientific necessity is politically unfeasible. So we need to raise understanding of what motivates us. Otherwise, the world will descend into geopolitical chaos in the struggle for the last resources.”

There were no examples more poignant at the Greenaccord conference than the “climate witnesses” brought there by the World Wildlife Fund. All their stories have been reviewed by more than 130 volunteer scientists, most of them connected to the International Panel on Climate Change. Putting a human face on global warming moves the image from the abstract to the concrete. (See www.panda.org/climatewitness for all 100-plus stories).

Most of them communicated to us through interpreters. I listened as Diego Redini, a milk farmer from Italy, spoke of how his cows are today producing one-quarter less milk in summer due to drier climate and little rainfall. I listened as Mbiwo Constantine Kusebahasa, a farmer from Uganda, describe how the rainy season has shifted, the rivers have dried, and malaria is everywhere. I listened to Nelly Damans from Kenya speak of tribal people fighting over water in the north. I listened to Jalaluddin Saha, a farmer from India and the last mangrove wetland for the Royal Bengal tiger, describe how his first two homes are now underwater while he lives in the center of Mousuni Island.

I heard Tony Fontas from Australia talk of how the greatest coral domain on the planet at the Great Barrier Reef is predicted to disappear entirely within 50 years. I heard David Tobar Franco from Guatemala talk of how the once-plentiful Motagua River is today little more than a creek and the water is so warm that the remaining pelicans and magpies can’t find enough food to survive. I heard Marush Narankhuu, a herds-woman from Mongolia, describe in her lilting musical voice how her cattle fall into the mud and die beneath the melting ice of Jargalant Mountain. “Tell your governments to do something,” she implored.

Most of us remember Mount Everest, and its moment of being first “conquered” by Sir Edmund Hilary in 1953. At this gathering, Apa Sherpa came – having been atop Everest a world-record 19 times – in his native garb and showing us a poster reading: “Stop climate change! Let the Himalayas live!” He was accompanied by Dawa Sherpa, whose family has been leading Everest expeditions for three generations. Now, he says, “Everything is melting right in front of our eyes.” Newly-exposed rock is all around, making climbing increasingly dangerous; as the glaciers disappear, garbage surfaces – so do dead bodies.

In his village, the 7-month-long snows have dwindled to only four months. The rains that come are more intense than before and cause flooding (four bridges washed away in 2007). Mosquitoes and leeches are slowly migrating from the lowlands to the highlands. Feral cats and leopards are entering the same territory as the snow leopards, which now come into villages to prey upon domestic animals. This year, the monsoon season lasted only two weeks. “They predict that 10 percent of Nepal, and three million people, are to face a food shortage this year,” Dawa Sherpa said. Altogether, 500 million in South Asia depend upon the Himalayan glaciers. These are the water towers of Asia, feeding the Ganges, the Yangtze, and eight other of the major rivers. So Apa Sherpa and Dawa Sherpa were going to Copenhagen with 22 other mountaineers, organizing a march to save the Himalayas.

As I watched a video on the Maldives, a chain of 200 South Pacific islands with a population of 300,000, a chain that is likely to disappear completely due to sea level rise – I began to weep. The words of various speakers rang in my ears: “We are now engaged in a competitive struggle not to do anything….To do nothing is fatal….” Could the visionary possibilities for change outlined at Greenaccord in 2009 possibly occur in time to make a difference?