CLIMATE, ECOSYSTEMS, AND “NATIONAL SOVEREIGNTY”

————————-
“The biggest unknown is how far America will
overcome its aversion to arrangements that, as
some argue, compromise its sovereignty. Advocates
of a more internationalist foreign policy scored
a victory this week when the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee voted 17-4 in favour of
ratifying UNCLOS at last. But to gain the
necessary 67 votes in the full Senate, they will
still have to overcome the nay-sayers who
(however unreasonably) see ratifying the
convention as a slippery slope, leading to the
far more horrifying prospect of an international
regime on climate change.”
————————-

The Economist-Nov 1st 2007

The UN and Climate Change-The Icy Road to Bali

The UN’s quiet new boss is hoping that his
eco-tour of the southern hemisphere will
concentrate minds on the planet’s travails

BAN KI-MOON has hardly been a limelight-stealer
during his 10 months as secretary-general of the
United Nations. But over the coming days, expect
to see the cautious, camera-shy South Korean at
the centre of some spectacular snaps: watching
the glaciers vanish at the bottom of Patagonia,
flying to the finger of land that juts out of
Antarctica and then heading for the vibrant heart
of Brazil’s forest.

Think of it as a circuitous, but
carefully-planned journey to the Indonesian
island of Bali, where the outlines of a grand
global bargain on how to deal with climate change
may or may not come into view at a meeting in
December. By his own account a “harmoniser”
rather than a tub-thumper, Mr Ban will be told
some amazing and often contradictory things as he
travels round some ecologically sensitive spots
on the southern edge of the world.

Is the earth’s climatic system about to spin out
of all control, threatening the lives and
livelihoods of billions of people, or is it a bit
more robust (or at least fixable) than the
gloomiest scientists think? In Chile, Antarctica
and Brazil, he is likely to hear and observe
evidence on both sides of that argument.

As he flies south to Punta Arenas, Mr Ban will
see dozens of glorious glaciers, almost all of
them (87% by one recent estimate) retreating and
thinning. The nearer they are to the sea, the
more vulnerable they are to rising temperatures.
But not all recent alterations in the physical
landscape reflect global warming. Earlier this
year, Chilean scientists were amazed to find a
deep hole where a glacial lake used to be. Rising
temperatures were initially blamed for the lake’s
disappearance; but researchers later concluded
that it simply tipped into an even bigger lake.

Around the Torres del Paine national park, near
Punta Arenas, Mr Ban will be able to listen to
the crashing and booming of glaciers as they
“calve” into the sea: a natural process, but one
that is accelerating. Here and in many other
parts of Chile, the effects of warming are
obvious. Some time in the coming decades, the
shrinking of glaciers will cause a drop in the
level of glacial runoff, reducing the supply of
water to urban Chileans. A similar, and often
more acute, challenge faces more than 1 billion
city-dwellers in other parts of the world who
rely on glacial runoff for their water.

Apart from global warming, Mr Ban will meet
people affected by another environmental
problem-the emergence of a hole in the ozone
layer. In Punta Arenas, residents have to cope
with radiation alerts when ozone depletion is so
severe that it becomes highly dangerous to expose
skin or eyes to the sun.

But for some environmentalists, the ozone story
is on balance a tale of success. When the
Montreal protocol, limiting ozone-depleting
chemicals, marked its 20th anniversary in
September, many people hailed it as an example
that could inspire those who are trying to combat
climate change. Once the scientific evidence
became overwhelming (and frightening enough to
generate political pressure), governments and
industry worked together to reduce the ozone
“hole”: at least those were the claims made at
the agreement’s birthday party. In the case of
climate change, the scale of the problem, and the
adjustments needed, are far greater-but the
principle (that the world can work together to
mitigate environmental harm) sounds like a good
one to follow.

What about Antarctica, which along with Greenland
forms one of the principal stores of fresh water
on earth? Most of the southern continent’s icy
mass, especially the eastern half which rests on
some very solid rock, is so deep-frozen that so
far at least, it has been impervious to climate
change. Encircled by icy winds, the compacted
snow of Antarctica’s deep interior is actually
growing in volume.

That is probably just as well, because if all the
water locked up in Antarctica were to cascade
into the ocean, global sea levels could rise by
60 metres (185 feet), leaving more than a third
of the UN’s New York headquarters under water. By
comparison with the Arctic, where the North Pole
could be swirling in ice-free seas in summer by
2040, the southern polar region seems a bit more
stable-but that is no reason to be complacent,
says Ted Scambos of the University of Colorado.
Two bits of Antarctica are heating up rapidly.
The peninsula that juts out of the continent is
warming as fast as anywhere: three degrees
Centigrade in the past 50 years. And in Pine
Island Bay two giant glaciers are shrinking, and
this process is accelerating. Of the global
sea-level rise that is already taking place
(about 3 millimetres per year since 1990,
compared with an average of less than 2mm before
1990), about one sixth may be the result of
melting from two smallish parts of Antarctica. So
even a minor change in the Antarctic landscape
has had global effects, and these are as grave as
those of the (far more obvious) melting of
Greenland’s ice mass.

To put these numbers in some perspective, a UN
study earlier this year said that by the end of
the century the global sea level was likely to
rise between 18 and 59 centimetres-a prediction
made with the important rider that it did not
include “processes related to ice flow”, in other
words, the possibly disastrous effects of chunks
of Greenland and Antarctica sliding into the sea
at a quickening pace.

The Antarctic landscape, no less than the
icefields of Chile, can deliver surprises. In
2002 an ice shelf the size of Rhode Island, which
had been stable for at least 10,000 years,
collapsed in just three weeks. Some smaller
changes are arguably more ominous, like a recent
drop in the southern seas’ ability to absorb
carbon.

Part of Mr Ban’s purpose in going to the deep,
icy south is to highlight-ahead of the Bali
meeting-the fact that there are problems facing
humanity which are so grave that they should
induce every country to restrain its
self-interest. So he may be depressed to run into
the beginnings of an old-fashioned territorial
spat between jealous countries. Last month
Britain said that-in what was just a routine
piece of “legal book-keeping”, or so diplomats
said-it was preparing a claim to an economic zone
off the coast of Antarctica stretching up to 350
nautical miles from the land mass that it already
regards as British.

This would be one of five claims that Britain
hopes, by the deadline of May 2009, to have
lodged under the UN Convention on the Law of the
Sea (UNCLOS), which allows countries to assert
economic rights in waters stretching 200 miles
from their coast or up to 350 miles if the area
is an extension of a continental shelf. At least
one of Britain’s other claims could be even more
contentious: it concerns the waters round the
Falklands and South Georgia, the objects of a war
with Argentina in 1982. All discussion about
Antarctic claims, whether on land or sea, tends
to be hedged with words like “hypothetical” and
“potential” because of a treaty that bans all
economic activity and proclaims the continent a
zone of peaceful research. But since both
Argentina and Chile contest Britain’s Antarctic
land claim (and therefore make corresponding
claims to the adjacent seabed), the dim
possibility exists of an active dispute if the
treaty were to collapse.

One argument used to insist that “none of this
really matters”-the fact that seabed-mining at
such extreme depths is at present physically
impossible-is feeble: many forms of deep-sea
extraction take place now that would have been
technically unthinkable a decade ago. Chile
responded to news of the British claim by rather
pointedly restating its own, and pledging to
reinvigorate its Antarctic research. The subject
is bound to come up, at least in small talk, with
Mr Ban.

From floes to forests

When the South Korean trouble-shooter leaves
Chile, he will head not for Brazil’s political or
financial centre, but to Santarém in the state of
Pará, which includes both some superbly intact
bits of rainforest and also areas that have been
ravaged by illegal logging. Like all visitors to
this enchanted region, he will hear a big variety
of sounds, human and animal.

In one respect, every one of his Brazilian
interlocutors will be singing the very same song:
the Amazonian forest, by its existence, delivers
great and desperately-needed benefits to the
planet, not just by absorbing carbon and
stimulating rainfall, but by maintaining
biodiversity. So when negotiators in Bali sit
down to dream up a broader and more effective
climate-change regime to replace the Kyoto
protocol that expires in 2012, they must include
the preservation of forests in any new system of
rules and financial incentives designed to keep
carbon in the ground. Deforestation is estimated
to account for between 18% and 25% of the carbon
emissions heating the world.

Call me Mr Ban: I’m here to listen

A compelling song, indeed-but if he listens
carefully, Mr Ban may detect some variations in
the versions rendered by Brazil’s central
government, by Brazil’s regions, and by
independent Brazilian scientists and
environmentalists, whom he also wants to meet.
The authorities in Brasilia want to be rewarded
for preserving the forest (and for the recent
decline in the annual rate of deforestation) by
government-to-government transfers. (That in
itself marks a shift in official Brazilian
thinking; only two years ago did it drop the idea
that any incentive to avoid deforestation could
infringe its sovereignty.)

But some regional politicians-especially in the
state of Amazonas where the forest is
impressively intact-and other local players,
including representatives of the indigenous
peoples, have endorsed the idea of “market-based”
approaches to rewarding them for guarding the
trees. They want carbon-trading systems, through
which first-world polluters can encourage
carbon-saving projects in poor countries, to
embrace the rainforests.

Up to now, many non-government organisations,
including Brazilian ones, have been wary of
market systems for limiting carbon emissions,
saying that they risk letting rich-world emitters
off the hook. Both on political and ethical
grounds, any solution to climate change must
include big, visible sacrifices by the countries
and economic players that are most responsible
for creating the problem-or so their argument
goes.

But that thinking may be changing. In the words
of John Sauven of Greenpeace (a British
campaigner who works closely with the movement’s
Brazilian branch), “we are all having to shed
some ideological baggage” in the face of a
galloping crisis. As he puts it, Greenpeace
certainly won’t drop its belief that rich people
and countries should play their part in abating
climate change; but it would be open to any
practical solution that preserves the rainforest,
and rewards anybody (from regional or local
governments to indigenous folk) who helps with
this preservation.

One of the problems is that market-based
incentives for the “avoidance of deforestation”
favour repentant sinners-in other words, those
who were chopping down the forest and can prove
they have stopped. This could short-change parts
of Congo, where (because of chronic civil war,
which proved quite healthy for some living
things) not much deforestation has taken place
recently. One idea, Mr Sauven says, is that
rich-world emitters of carbon could be made to
pay into an internationally supervised fund on
which any government tending the forest might
draw.

Independent Brazilian scientists will also
clamour for Mr Ban’s ear. Some will want to argue
that the links between the shrinking rainforests
of Brazil, the vanishing glaciers of Chile and
the declining ability of the southern oceans to
soak up carbon are even closer than the scholarly
consensus has so far acknowledged.

A lot of noises, then, buzzing round the head of
a Korean who is known as a good listener. And
arguments about the eco-system of the southern
hemisphere are only part of the backdrop to the
bargain that has to be struck-between old
carbon-emitters like America, and rising ones
like China and India-if the risk of over-heating
the planet, leaving it with too much salt water
and too little of the fresh kind, is to be
averted. The biggest unknown is how far America
will overcome its aversion to arrangements that,
as some argue, compromise its sovereignty.
Advocates of a more internationalist foreign
policy scored a victory this week when the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee voted 17-4 in favour
of ratifying UNCLOS at last. But to gain the
necessary 67 votes in the full Senate, they will
still have to overcome the nay-sayers who
(however unreasonably) see ratifying the
convention as a slippery slope, leading to the
far more horrifying prospect of an international
regime on climate change.

Copyright © 2007 The Economist Newspaper and The
Economist Group. All rights reserved.

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