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High Stakes Accompany Global Climate Change

By Lea Terhune

High Stakes Accompany Global Climate Change

As delegates gather for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, Indonesia, the stakes could not be higher. The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes it clear that global warming is an "unequivocal" reality whose effects now are being felt around the world.

"Climate change is a serious problem, and humans are contributing to it. We are at a critical moment," Under Secretary of State Paula Dobriansky recently told the U.S. Congress. "We are committed to doing our part."

"We seek a 'Bali Road Map' that will advance negotiations" under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to be in place by 2009, she said. Dobriansky leads the U.S. delegation to Bali, which also includes senior climate negotiator Harlan Watson.

Greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, produced by human activity are major contributors to global warming, according to the IPCC report. Reducing emissions is critical for conservation of the global environment. Irreversible effects of global warming already have been seen, but scientists say that prompt action can stop many more negative effects.

Habitat degradation and losses of up to 30 percent of plant and animal species and a 1.4 meter sea level rise by 2100 are among the potential impacts of climate change, the report says. Crop production will be affected; large human migrations will occur. The developing world is most vulnerable.

"Bali is a starting point, not the conclusion," Watson said after the release of the IPCC final synopsis November 17.

The Bali conference that runs December 3-14 involves 191 countries and will consider ways to meet the looming environmental crisis.

The participants face tough questions, according to Angela Anderson, vice president for climate programs at the National Environmental Trust, a Washington-based, nonpartisan advocacy group.

"Do we continue to maintain the notion of common but differentiated responsibilities? Everyone agrees that the developing world has to make a contribution toward reducing emissions. ... The IPCC has made it pretty clear that if only developed countries reduce emissions, we can't get where we need to go" to stabilize greenhouse gases, she said.

"There are tremendous needs that go beyond the standard sustainable development assistance that the U.S. and other nations provide," she said.

The "touchiest" and most critical challenge is "to set guiding principles for the mitigation goals for the next two years," Anderson said, adding that at U.N. talks in August, goals were outlined for an agreement that would put emissions reductions "within the range of 25-40 percent below today's levels."

The chief elements to negotiate in the face of the rapid global climate change detailed in the IPCC report, U.S. officials say, are mitigation, adaptation and technology development and transfer.

"[T]he issue warrants urgent action, and we need to bring forward, in a more accelerated way, the technology that will make a lasting solution possible," White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairman James Connaughton said, adding the United States wants mutually acceptable agreements with other nations to curb greenhouse gas emissions in a manner that does not hinder economic growth.

The U.S. government promotes and funds a wide range of programs, domestic and international, to mitigate these worst outcomes. Cooperation with major economies of Europe and Asia to utilize existing clean and sustainable energy technologies and develop new ones is a high priority, U.S. officials say.

The Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate and the Global Village Energy Partnership are two such U.S. initiatives that engage governments and the private sector in China, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea and Latin America to work toward clean development goals alongside national objectives.

"What may happen in Bali is a likely agreement on the road map for the future," Radjendra Pachauri, IPCC chairman, told the Associated Press. He said he looks for "likely timetables and deadlines" that will extend beyond 2012. The Kyoto Protocol, which commits signatory countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, expires in 2012.

The urgency is underlined by recent scientific evidence not reflected in the IPCC report. Scientists say the new data are alarming.

"The scary part of the most recent research is that it appears that the impacts of climate change are happening faster than we've expected," Angela Anderson said, yet she emphasizes the positive. "Estimates of the technology, the solutions, and the mitigation scenarios that are available are within our grasp. They are affordable when you look at the global economic cost of them. It's doable. We can mitigate the worst impacts of global warming," she said, "if there is the worldwide political will to do so."

As Pachauri said, "What will be of critical importance is for all the countries of the world to realize that we are all in this together."


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