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?
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.
[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.
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.
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?
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!