Yesterday afternoon I attended a side event hosted by the delegation from Kiribati, to issue their Call To The World (watch the video here). I was a few minutes late, having dashed to the Bella Center from an earlier meeting at the Klimaforum in central Copenhagen, and it was with a slight sense of trepidation that I pushed open the door to the meeting room. Would they have a good attendance, or would this tiniest of countries (pop. 100,000) have failed to register on the COP15 radar?

An I-Kiribati dancer cheering up the proceedings
An I-Kiribati dancer cheering up the proceedings

So I was relieved to see the rows of seats almost full, and many more people standing around the sides of the room. But the presentation got off to a slow start as two members of the delegation ran through rather dry Powerpoint presentations on the effects of climate change and their planned defence measures. Then some light relief – an I-Kiribati dancer in traditional dress, beaming broadly, strutted her hip-waggling stuff onstage to a toe-tapping beat that got the crowd clapping and the cameras flashing.

So after this display of wonderful Pacific joie de vivre the contrast was all the greater when Dr Robert Kay got up to show a computer-generated simulation of what will happen by the year 2100 to the islands of Kiribati – the home of this joyful dancer, the members of the delegation, and their compatriots. The satellite image on the projector screen showed the capital island, Tarawa, at first blemished by a few small outbreaks of blue around the edges of the atoll, representing localized areas of inundation in 2020. As the decades passed the isolated patches grew and merged, until by 2100 not much of South Tarawa was left. The island where my boat currently resides would have become a shadow of its former self, its freshwater lens long since rendered brackish and undrinkable.

Then, as if the news were not already bad enough – an outbreak of pink blotches, showing the areas that would be vulnerable to flooding in the kind of storm that might hit once in 10 years. The island of South Tarawa, with a population of around 40,000, now disappeared under an almost continuous patchwork of blue and pink.

Dr Robert Keen presents the 2100 scenario - bad news for Kiribati
Dr Robert Kay presents the 2100 scenario - bad news for Kiribati

[Important note: I need to emphasize that this simulation reflected the worst case scenario projected by the UNFCCC. Also I heard no mention of coral growth, which has the potential to mitigate the effects of rising oceans if the rate of growth can outpace the rate of sea level rise – provided, of course, that the ability of the coral to grow is not seriously reduced by ocean acidification.]

The simulation had a huge effect on the audience. The high spirits that had accompanied the dancer vanished faster than barbecue partygoers in a rainstorm, leaving the room in stunned silence. When my friend Tessie Lambourne concluded her part of the presentation by saying, “We don’t want to be environmental refugees – we want to relocate on merit, with dignity,” there was an immediate round of heartfelt and sympathetic applause.

How the people of Kiribati feel about their fate
How the people of Kiribati feel about their fate

I hope that the Kiribati gets the dramatic cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases that they seek from COP15. But the problem here is that a global problem is being discussed on a nation-by-nation basis.

What is the ideal level for decision-making? National? Local? Global? We have this illusion of separateness, but we are all linked by our shared dependence on this planet.

Physically, the only things that separate countries are manmade borders, or oceans. But the oceans, like the atmosphere, also connect all countries. One country’s pollution will affect its neighbours, near and far.

Economically, too, we are all linked. Britain may have reduced its carbon emissions, but largely by exporting much of its manufacturing processes to China. Same goes for the United States. So there is a kind of karmic justice in the fact that 25% of the air pollution in Los Angeles originates in China – environmental chickens coming home to roost.

Unfortunately this example of instant karma is rare. Most of the effects of environmental evils are felt far from their point of origin. At his presentation to the Climate Riders in September, Dr Ben Strauss gave this example: if climate change was local to each country depending on its own emissions, 20th century America would have seen a rise in temperature of a dramatic 22.5 degrees Fahrenheit. This would give Boston similar July temperatures to Phoenix (95-96 degrees) and would make Phoenix practically uninhabitable. This would no doubt focus the American mind marvellously.

However, in the real world, the effects of environmental abuse are distributed globally – although not equally. In fact, it will be primarily the world’s poorest countries that will feel the effects first, while the developed countries are able to “export” much of their impact.

Long hours evidently anticipated as the negotiations move into their final stages next week
Long hours evidently anticipated as the negotiations move into their final stages next week

So we have a situation where the developed countries have limited incentive to change, many of the fast-developing countries prioritize a short-term increase in standard of living over long-term sustainability, and the slow-developing countries – like Kiribati – are left to foot the environmental bill.

What is to be done? We have organized our human society around strong national identities that discourage global thinking. And our dominant system of electing governments is democracy, which discourages long-term thinking. Yet here we are faced with a global, long-term problem. Have we set ourselves up for disaster, or can we quickly switch to a new way of thinking, more appropriate to the challenge we now face?

Other Stuff:

Pretty insignificant in the overall scheme of things, but I can’t help feeling a bit cranky about being listed among the Daily Telegraph’s “Misadventures” of the last decade for my failed attempt on the Pacific in 2007. Of course they utterly fail to mention my successes on the Atlantic in 2006, and on the Pacific in 2008 and 2009. Please feel free to post your comments on this omission on their website!


  • You said

    “But the problem here is that a global problem is being discussed on a nation-by-nation basis.”

    Sobering thoughts indeed, Roz.

    Will Air Force One land in Copenhagen with hope, and hope alone? Now is the time for the USA to share the lead, now is the time for Obama to show character, never mind what Congress will say back home.

    Is our World ready for the challenge ahead, or will you push your little boat off Tarawa beach, just to bide farewell?

  • Dear Lady Roz, Once again you’re absolutely right – the governance of large-area problems by small-area units is an increasing problem. It is certainly true here in the U.S., where our Red vs. Blue State issues impact national decisions and our individual local school boards (only industrialized nation to apparently have such a localized system) impacting student education quality clear on up to international rating levels. Now multiply that by 192 nations and the decision-making and subsequent actions situation becomes overwhelming. So which is the best level – local, national, or global? As usual, m’Lady, you’ve raised a difficult question for which there seems to be no easy answer. We’ll stay tuned for your further thoughts!
    And as to climate change potentially raising Boston temperatures to a Phoenix level and Phoenix becoming “practically unlivable”, why, most July Phoenix days are ALREADY “practically unlivable”! Sorry about that, Boston Red Sox! – Doug S.

  • Roz, saw this, thought of you, thought it might be encouraging, from wiser lips than mine! You and your fellow attendees (especially the BB2B troupe!) are certainly this.

    A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history. – Mohandas Gandhi

  • Roz

    Like Joan in Atlanta, I commented on the Telegraph article, but our comments aren’t showing up yet! But I see from Tarquin’s blog that others may have protested their omission, too.

    Thoroughly enjoying your articles on Copenhagen – much better than the newspapers’ dry ‘news’. One can only hope that some good comes out of the whole thing. Keep on going! Cx

  • *** Population: The good news is that the proclivity to breed declines as populations get wealthier, and the number of countries with growth problems is declining rapidly. The native populations of the wealthiest countries are on the decline in absolute terms! I recommended two of the best loved TED talks on the subject earlier, but you were at sea at the time. Take a look at the first two Hans Rosling TED talks now:

    *** Consumerism: The effect on CO2 from consumerism varies hugely, depending on the goods consumed, ranging from benign to malignant:

    Solar panels, art, private schooling, diamonds, 52″ TV’s: not so bad. People sufficiently dedicated to the pursuit of this stuff often limit their offspring to 0 or 1 child.

    Traditional SUV’s (now subsidized, thanks to bailouts), public schools (which substantially reduce the marginal cost of having multiple kids), fertility treatments: not so good. The impact on CO2 of having 2 or 3 kids, due to espousing “family values” rather than “materialism” will obviously be several times worse. A couple of years ago I was stunned to observe 15 SUV’s in a row, parked in front of a public school during some event (and many more lined surrounding streets). It struck me that public schooling does more to subsidize GM than it does to promote education. (!)

    *** The “Myth” of global warming: I recommend this article from Scientific American, which addresses 7 popular global warming denier arguments:

    *** Atoll nations: It wouldn’t matter if sea levels stopped rising. The land area per person would continue to erode, due to their birth rate. E.g. in Tuvalu, there are 3.11 children born per woman. IMO acidification and other changes within the oceans are of much greater concern globally than sea level rise.

    *** P.S. Welcome back, Climate Change Roz! 😉

  • Sorry to disappoint, Christopher, but I still maintain my focus on the SOLUTION, i.e. sustainable living, rather than on the PROBLEM, i.e. climate change. This blog is about as far as I’ll go towards discussing CC.

    But thanks for the links – all good stuff.

  • Well…I’m not disappointed at all with your position as articulated in Tuesday’s post! 🙂

    In Tuesday’s post, your concept of “solution” was grounded in understanding the problems, and solving the problems, –quite the opposite of an earlier post that did disappoint me:

    But your comment above reveals a crucial terminology problem: You used the words ‘SOLUTION’ and “sustainable living” as equivalents.

    Tuesday’s post elucidated the significant difference, however. Sustainable living is the goal. Fine. Agreed. Getting from here to there requires “solutions”, which are quite different in their essence (just as losing weight and being thin are different things).

    It’s easy to say that the goal is a (sustainable) 350 ppm CO2e.

    It will be hard to get from where we are now (390 PPM) to where we want to go (350 ppm CO2e). That will require solutions.

    I’ve stopped using the word ‘sustainability’, and I hope you will too. The problem is that many people (politicians in particular) think ‘sustain’ means “maintain the status quo”, or even “subsidize the status quo”, as in the U.S. “Cash for Clunkers” program to subsidize auto sales.

    Solutions will require change. Big change. We have to face up to it. Allowing politicians wiggle room to avoid change by espousing “sustainability” is a strategic mistake. If we sustain our use of fossil fuels (entirely possible with coal), we’re doomed.

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