"The Catastrophe Is At Our Door"

In the final hours at Copenhagen, depth of crisis is daunting

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(Editor’s Note: Earthjustice attorney Erika Rosenthal is blogging from the climate conference in Copenhagen. Here is her report from the night of Dec. 17.)

Sometime late in the marathon high level segment of the COP, the environment minister of the Central African Republic took the floor and said: “The catastrophe is at our door.” He allied his country with the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and insisted the world must limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees and CO2 concentrations to 350ppm “for our survival.” “Two degrees and 450 ppm,” he said, “are unrealistic.” He meant it is unrealistic to expect that the countries of Africa will survive 2 degrees warming. But the literal reading of his words is also true. 

Just a few hours ago a leaked U.N. document revealed that the UNFCCC secretariat was fully aware that the emissions cuts on the table so far at the Copenhagen climate change summit would still result in temperature rise an average 3 degrees Celsius. (“Average” is critical—the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average; Africa too is warming faster than the global mean.)   Some experts say it’s likely to be even worse—closer to 4 degrees Celsius and 550 ppm. 

What is on the table so far, as we head into the final hours? The developed countries are offering to cut emissions by an aggregate 18 percent below 1990 levels. (This figure takes into account climate leaders, like Norway, that have pledged 40% reductions, and countries like the US that have pledged only 4% reductions.)  Some major emitting developing countries have pledged reductions in “carbon intensity.” But if the economy of China, for example, continues to grow, its pledge to cut energy intensity by 40 to 45 percent will result in an increase in its emissions. 

What does it add up to?

No one knows for sure the extent of the catastrophe ahead. But we have some ideas.  The highly respected Stern Report prepared for the UK government, says a temperature rise of 3 degrees C would mean 550 million more people risk hunger, and 170 million more enduring (if they survive) coastal flooding.

But these estimates were based on the 2007 report of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change), which many of the same scientists who penned it now think was vastly too conservative.  For example, the report projected 40 centimeters of sea level rise by 2100. A report from the Arctic Council  (a policy and science body of the eight Arctic countries including the US) released earlier this week in an event with Al Gore has drastically revised that projection based on the accelerated ice melting on Greenland and elsewhere. Scientists now believe the anticipated rise by 2100 may reach 1 to 1.5 meters.

And we should all take heed. As Prime Minister Asheed of the Maldives said earlier this evening: “If you can’t save the Maldives today, you can’t save yourself tomorrow.”

Part of the International program, Erika's work focuses on climate change, at international negotiations and with U.N. Environment Programme and regional bodies like the Arctic Council to reduce emissions of atmospheric pollutants.