Let's play the music of save the planet
By Op Rana (China Daily)
Updated: 2008-12-12 07:43

The 40 leading industrialized countries emitted 2.3 percent more greenhouse gases (GHG) from 2000 to 2006. Massive floods deep below Antarctica's ice cover are accelerating the flow of glaciers into the sea.

These two pieces of news came a couple of weeks before the Dec 1-12 UN Climate Change Conference in Poznan, Poland. But unfortunately they went almost unnoticed in the media (both in China and abroad) busy as they were grappling with the global financial crisis.

Call it quirk of the modern world's fate, or our incapability to look beyond the immediate. We are so ensconced in the comforts of our times that nothing beyond the immediate can break our stupor. It's true, global warming made a few headlines before the financial crisis spread its wings from the US and cast a shadow of gloom over the rest of the world. But our response has always been knee-jerk.

Let's first see what the new information on GHG emission and Antarctic floods mean. The UN report on GHG emission is not all bad news, says top UN climate official Yvo de Boer. Why? Emissions rose over the past six years but they were still down 5 percent from 1990 levels, a drop attributed mostly to the economic decline in former East Bloc countries. Then comes the bad news. Since 2000, these "economies in transition" have registered the highest emission increase, with 7.4 percent more in 2006.

But still the UN Climate Change Secretariat hopes to reach a new deal next year to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which requires 37 industrialized countries to reduce GHG emissions by an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. The countries have lowered emissions by about 17 percent since 1990, but they have posted a rise after 2000, too. And only 16 of them are likely to meet their Kyoto targets.

The news from the icy continent is bleak, too. The pace at which Antarctic and Arctic glaciers melt will determine the rise in sea levels. Researchers have found that inaccessible sub-glacial lakes in Antarctica periodically shed huge volumes of water. They discovered 1.7 cubic km of water cascaded through sub-glacial waterways in just over a year, moving about 10 percent faster.

Two forces, both driven by global warming, cause sea levels to rise. One is thermal expansion of seawater. Last year, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that thermal expansion would push sea levels up 18 to 59 cm by 2100, enough to submerge several small island nations and wreak havoc in low-lying major deltas in Asia and Africa. But it didn't take into account the impact of the second force: melting glaciers. The Greenland ice sheet, for example, has enough water to raise sea levels by 7 m, and it's melting faster than ever. Even the gloomiest global warming warnings don't include such a scenario.

But these are just numbers for us, and twisting them is one art we have mastered. This mathematical game, or trickery, reminds one of what Theodor Adorno thought about modern music: "The shocks of incomprehension, emitted by artistic technique illuminate the meaningless world. Modern music has taken upon itself all the darkness and guilt of the world. Its fortune lies in the conception of misfortune; all of its beauty is in denying itself the illusion of beauty modern music sees absolute oblivion as its goal. It is the surviving message of despair from the shipwrecked."

Like in modern music, jugglery with climate change figures is denial of reality, the reality of the world. Rich nation's emission levels are far above the world average. So their cuts should be at least 80 per cent. Europe and the UK acknowledge this. But that means more bargains and more jugglery with numbers (of imminent doom).

The financial crisis has given the world a chance to rethink our development priorities, to save our planet and create a cleaner and more secure economy, make low-carbon growth a reality, and find a potent way to alleviate global poverty. It has given us another chance to savor the beauty of the music of our planet. The nations that have assembled in Poznan know we can do it.

But who will start the music, play the pied piper and become the messiah of our times?

E-mail: oprana@hotmail.com

(China Daily 12/12/2008 page8)