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Slavery of climate change

By Saleemul Huq - posted Friday, 13 July 2007

Tackling climate change is like ending slavery. Climate change threatens to wreck the lives of hundreds of millions of the world's poorest, least powerful people. Tackling this threat today is akin to abolishing slavery, both in terms of the scale of the problem and the extent of potential human misery.

Recently US President George W. Bush invited the 15 top emitters of greenhouse gases to talks to agree on “long term goals” to reduce their emissions. This is akin to convening a meeting of top slave owners to talk about ending slavery - at some unspecified future time and with the least inconvenience to themselves.

There is already an international treaty to combat global warming - the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) - which practically every country in the world is party to. All developing countries, including major ones such as Brazil, China, India and South Africa, are deeply engaged in the ongoing, and so far very fruitful, dialogue under the convention.


They are working to agree a global regime for tackling climate change for post-2012, when the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol ends, and hope to reach a consensus by the next UNFCCC meeting in Bali, Indonesia in December 2007.

Bush's idea of initiating new, parallel talks between just a few countries is nothing but an effort to derail these ongoing talks. Brazil's president Lula da Silva has already rejected Bush's idea. Other countries should not fall into his trap of delaying action under a UN framework.

Needless to say, the modern-day equivalents of the slaves are not invited to Mr Bush's table. They are the hundreds of millions of poor people in about 150 countries in Africa, Asia and on small islands who do not emit large amounts of greenhouse gases, but will be the first to suffer the impacts of global warming.

Governments and electorates need to see through Bush's smokescreen and take urgent action to agree global targets and timescales to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is essential to keep atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide below 550 parts per million to limit the increase in global temperature to no more than 2C.

Rich countries must accept that their historical and ongoing emissions are responsible for current climate change. They need to provide emerging economies with technological assistance to ensure that their development has the least impact on the global environment.

Everyone must face up to the facts that some impacts of climate change are already inevitable; and that these will be felt hardest by those who have contributed least to the problem.


Because of this we need to focus not only on mitigating climate change by reducing emissions, but also on adapting to the changes ahead. This will entail more than simply giving money to governments in developing nations.

It will require concerted efforts to ensure that the information and financial support reaches the poor and vulnerable communities, who will need to alter the way they live and work or face growing future risks to their lives and livelihoods.

In the face of these challenges, there remain powerful voices in rich nations who say that tackling climate change will cost too much. To argue this is shameful given that living standards in G8 and other rich nations have never been better. In any case, the UK government's Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change concluded last year that climate change could shrink the global economy by up to 20 per cent but that acting now to face the threat would cost just 1 per cent of global GDP.

Others insist that climate change is not real or that humans are not to blame. It is bizarre that these unscientific views are given so much oxygen in the media when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - made up of hundreds the world's top climate-change researchers - has reached agreement that human activities are indeed causing climate change and that action is urgently needed.

The science is clear. The economics are clear. All that remains is a moral obligation on one hand and political prevarication on the other. The people of the USA, Australia - and every other nation that is dragging its feet - deserve to know of the moral bankruptcy of Bush's plan. Time is running out.

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This article is republished in collaboration with ScienceAlert, the only news website dedicated to Australasian science.

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About the Author

Saleemul Huq is the Head of Climate Change at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and co-ordinating lead author of the IPCC Working Group II report.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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