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Climate Campaigners Are Hoping For A Catastrophic Wake-Up Call

The difficulties in reaching an agreement on emissions reductions, made evident once again at Rio+20, could be solved by a climate disaster destructive enough to sensitize the international community. “I’m afraid that only a major catastrophe, that would directly and massively affect people’s lives, would force us to make the changes needed,” said British biologist Jonathan Baillie.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 22 (Tierramérica).- Disasters are the new midwives of history. But in order to play this role, they need to be catastrophic, like the accidents in Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 that led governments to suspend and even abolish their nuclear energy programs.

To spur real action on climate change, a disaster would have to be serious enough to change people’s minds, but not so great as to be uncontrollable, according to Martin Lees, Rector Emeritus of the United Nations University for Peace.

“Urgent and deep cuts” in greenhouse gas emissions are needed to curb global warming and its impacts, stresses the statement “Action to Face the Urgent Realities of Climate Change”, presented at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) by the Climate Change Task Force (CCTF).

The CCTF was convened in 2009 by former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-1991) and is made up by 20 former world leaders, climate scientists and experts, including Lees.

Emissions are currently rising at a rate above the worst case scenario foreseen by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which projected an “intolerable” increase in global average temperature of over six degrees by 2100.

However, IPCC scientists are probably “underestimating the pace and intensity of climate change” due to caution and the complexities of peer review, warns the CCTF statement.

Despite these warnings, the issue of climate change was barely addressed at Rio+20, held in Rio de Janeiro 20 years after the Earth Summit hosted by the same city. The outcomes of the 1992 summit included international conventions on climate change, biodiversity and desertification.

Difficulties in reaching agreements and the failure of negotiations at the meetings of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2009 in Copenhagen and 2010 in Cancún have led government leaders to avoid the issue of the climate and the polarization around it, Lees told Tierramérica. The most frequently cited justification for this avoidance is the global economic and financial crisis, which has mainly affected the countries of Europe, but it is “an extremely dangerous error to think that we must deal with the economy first, and the climate later,” says the CCTF, whose only Latin American member is former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006). [….]

Yet Rio+20 did not “give proper attention to climate change,” rendering all of the other problems and tasks addressed meaningless, lamented Gorbachev.

Awareness of its seriousness is on the rise once again, as a result of extreme weather events, Likhotal observed.

Governments need to be pressured by society to adopt the necessary measures and targets, said Samantha Smith, leader of the WWF Global Climate and Energy Initiative, at a press conference at Rio+20. This is what Brazilians did, she noted, to prevent further destruction through a proposed amendment of the Forest Code, which is still being debated.

Tragedies like the landslides and floods that killed almost 1,000 people last year in mountainous cities near Rio de Janeiro served as a strong argument in favor of legislation that prevents deforestation. But scattered local disasters, or impacts invisible to the average citizen, such as the loss of biodiversity, are apparently still not enough to motivate international policies and agreements.

The Fukushima accident, because of its enormity, succeeded in burying a number of nuclear projects, at least temporarily. Yet nuclear energy had already lost a great deal of support after Chernobyl, and it was in fact the fears around fossil fuels and climate change that were largely responsible for renewed support in more recent years.

“I’m afraid that only a major catastrophe, that would directly and massively affect people’s lives, would force us to make the changes needed,” said British biologist Jonathan Baillie in an interview with TerraViva, the independent newspaper published by IPS at Rio+20.

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