Thu, Jul 17, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Climate disasters just the tip of the melting iceberg


Record heat in India, severe flooding in Sri Lanka and an unprecedented number of tornados in the US -- all extreme weather events the UN's World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has recently linked to escalating global warming.

The extraordinary climatic activity in May and last month in these three regions has left nearly 1,750 people dead. In China this summer, record flooding has killed 569 people so far, while in India and Bangladesh, 4.4 million have been rendered homeless.

As world temperatures continue to shoot up, death tolls and increased devastation from violent weather could skyrocket as well, the WMO says.

"Record extremes in weather and climate events continue to occur around the world," the world's weather bureau reported in an unusual July 2 statement. "In recent years, the number of such extremes have been escalating."

The UK's Independent newspaper described the WMO's report as "startling" and "astonishing" in a July 4 editorial, noting the UN body never issues such statements mid-year.

"The unprecedented warning takes its force and significance from the fact that it is not coming from Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth, but from an impeccably respected UN organization that is not given to hyperbole," the Independent notes.

The WMO says global average land and sea surface temperatures in May were the second highest since records began in 1880.

Considering land temperatures only, May was the warmest month ever recorded.

Scientists predict over the next 100 years, global average temperatures will surge between 1.4 to 5.8?C -- an increase that threatens the existence of life on the planet, some say.

Scientific consensus

Despite back-pedaling by the US and fence-sitting by Russia, most of the world and its scientists acknowledge that human activity is widely to blame for the rising mercury, and are ready to take action to minimize it.

Since the early 1990s, the burning of fossil fuels has been fingered as the main cause of greenhouse gas (GHG) increases in the atmosphere. The consumption of coal, oil and natural gas is releasing the carbon stored in these fossil fuels at an unprecedented rate, a UN Environmental Programme fact sheet states.

Global annual emissions amount to more than 23 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, up 30 percent since 1800. The gases create an invisible "greenhouse" encompassing the earth's atmosphere, locking heat inside and warming the planet.

The seriousness of the effects of fossil-fuel consumption is witnessed in resounding international agreement to tackle the problem. So far, 110 industrialized nations have ratified or acceded to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which would legally bind nations to meet specific greenhouse gas-reduction targets.

However, after the world's number one GHG polluter -- the US -- shunned the Protocol for a "voluntary" reduction approach, international action to combat the growing danger is in jeopardy.

Ratification by Russia would bring the Kyoto agreement into effect, but the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to stall citing economic concerns.

While heat waves, floods, drought and desertification increase in number and intensity, the current climate chaos could be just the tip of the iceberg.

"However severe these currently-unfolding climate change impacts might seem, they are -- like the canary in the coal mine -- just the first whispers of the holocaust that lies ahead if nothing is done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," says global-warming author Mark Lynas.

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