The end of the world as we know it?

The UN and others are warning that the atmosphere is heating up and climate change could lead to a `holocaust'


Tue, Jul 22, 2003 - Page 16

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 June this year 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 has been increasing."

The UK's Independent newspaper described the WMO's report as "startling" and "astonishing" in an editorial earlier this month, 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 this year 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?C to 5.8?C -- an increase that threatens the existence of life on the planet, some say.

Despite back-pedaling by the US and fence walking 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 Program 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 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 Vladimir Putin continues to stall citing economic concerns.

While heatwaves, 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.

"Climate change is an issue of basic human survival."

Lynas underscores the work of paleontologist Michael Benton from Bristol University. Benton, author of When Life Nearly Died, says 95 percent of life on earth was wiped out after a series of volcanic eruptions in Siberia during the Permian period 251 million years ago.

The volcanic event spewed massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, initiating a greenhouse cycle that warmed the earth's temperature by 6 Celsius -- the same high-end figure predicted by WMO scientists by the end of the 21st century.

The latest climatological research, however, says the earth may heat up even more than WMO scientists estimate. A June meeting in Berlin of atmospheric researchers -- using a computer model they say is more accurate than the WMO's -- led to predictions of a 7?C to 10?C upper-limit jump by 2100.

Another factor to contemplate, Lynas says, is the rapidity of the current carbon dioxide explosion into the atmosphere.

"The rise in greenhouse gases, which triggered the end-Permian mass extinction, took place over many thousands of years," he says. "The current rise is happening

in decades."

So what can be done?

Lynas suggests for starters the Kyoto Protocol must be implemented immediately. In a decade, "equal per-person emissions rights" should be legislated around the world, as proposed by the Global Commons Institute in London.

Ultimately, the world must shift from a fossil fuel-based economy, to one driven by clean energy sources, he says.

"The old mindset which demands an oil-based economy must be left behind, not just because it sparks wars and terrorism in the short term, but because the very future of life on Earth depends on it as well."