A new inequality
Bernardo Kliksberg examines the unsettling global scenario presented in the Intergovernmental Panel of the United Nations’ Report on Climate Change and says that the problem affects the whole planet, but the degrees of vulnerability vary greatly according to country’s wealth. The paradox is that the rich countries are the principal producers of greenhouse gases, and the poorest are the ones who suffer the worst consequences.
THE NEW REPORT FROM THE UN´S INTERGOVERNMENTAL PANEL ON CLIMATE CHANGE generated great public interest. The report, prepared by two thousands scientists from more than a hundred countries, predicts that global warming could have clear impacts on public health and indicates that it could provoke an increase in deaths and diseases due to heat waves, floods, storms, fires, and droughts.
Jonathan Patz, of the University of Wisconsin, indicates that one can expect an increase of malaria in Africa. The disease kills between one and two million people annually. Patz’ conclusion: Global warming is one of the most challenging threats to public health of the millennium.
THE POINT OF NO RETURN
Thomas Lovejoy, president of the prestigious Heinz Environmental Center (Washington), says that the report is a sad confirmation of what we have been approaching for the past 20 years. The environment is very sensitive to global warming, and we are seeing disequilibria in ecosystems throughout the world. David Ignatius (The Washington Post) calls attention to the scenarios that futurologist Peter Schwartz draws up, written on the same premise. His study shows that global warming is pushing all types of systems to a point of no return.
This disequilibrium is exemplified by Haiti and Bangladesh. Haiti has become, in terms of deforestation and fertile land loss, an ecosystem on the edge. Some of the common risks of global warming, such as a prolonged drought or a devastating hurricane, could destroy the ecosystem and produce a serious refugee crisis. In Bangladesh, millions of people live next to the water. Polar ice caps continuing to melt and rising oceans could produce a catastrophe from which between 60 and 100 million people would have to escape. On the other hand, the report predicts that in arid and semiarid regions, where 700 million people live, global warming could aggravate water shortages. Millions would have to flee.
THE GROWTH OF A SERIOUS PROBLEM
The rise of temperatures, the most in 10,000 years, could in 2020 threaten the survival of between 20 and 30 percent of known species. WWF, an environmental NGO, indicates that among the species at risk are sea turtles in Latin America. Their nests could be destroyed by the rising sea levels. The larch forests in Chile and Argentina would be at high risk caused by the extensive periods of drought and the possible increase in forest fires.
Ninety percent of global climate change is a product of human activity. It is directly tied to greenhouse gas emissions. Ten thousand years ago, there were 160 parts of carbon dioxide per million in the atmosphere. Now it is estimated that there are 380 parts per million. During the past 20 years, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has been increasing at the unprecedented rate of 1.5 parts per year. The secretary general of the UN, Ban-Ki Moon, who has put the issue in the center of his management, assures that global warming is a grave problem in development.
THE POORER, THE MOST VULNERABLE
Climate change affects the whole planet, but the degrees of vulnerability are vastly different according to the wealth of the country. The report emphasizes the inequality of impacts, saying: Poor communities are especially vulnerable because they tend to concentrate themselves in areas of high risk; they have less capacity to confront the problem and are more dependent on resources sensitive to the environment, such as water and food sources.
This creates a paradoxical situation. According to the experts, the world’s richest countries are the principal producers of greenhouse gases. It is calculated that the United States is responsible for 29 percent of carbon dioxide emissions and Western Europe 27 percent. Third world countries don’t have a significant effect. They, however, are the ones that could suffer the most serious consequences. According to the UN, water shortages could affect 250 million people in Africa in 2020 and agricultural production in certain areas could fall by 50 percent in the same year. In Asia, a lack of fresh water could affect one billion people in 2050. Economist Jacob Mendelsohn (Yale) says: The original idea was that we were all together in this, which was an easy idea to sell. But the investigation didn’t show that: we are not all together.
The public pressure for immediate measures is growing in the developed world. In the United States, Congress created a new committee dedicated to the subject. The Supreme Court broke the tradition of their failed history. The case presented by 12 states and 13 environmental NGO’s, was answered by the court’s ruling that the Federal Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate toxic gases from automobiles and that it cannot refuse to exercise its authority without scientific reasoning. Various states have announced goals for the reduction of emissions. The Washington Post says that the biggest moral question of our time is our responsibility toward the planet and its inhabitants. The New York Times commented: The risks of inaction are large. Time for action is fleeting.
FORGING A PACT OF RESPONSIBILITY
The European Union agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent by 2020. Great Britain set goals even greater: a 26 to 32 percent reduction, and possible laws to support their goal.
Latin America, which only contributes 3.8 percent of greenhouse gases, appears in the new report of the UN with a worrisome prognosis. Melting glaciers put millions of people at risk for not having sufficient water. There are also the effects of hurricanes and floods among the most vulnerable populations, the destructive impact on agriculture and the regressive effects on the health of the poorest.
In such an unequal region, the asymmetries in income, capital, education, etc. are exacerbating the greater vulnerability of the most humble to global warming.
It is important to design public policies, regionally and globally, that are very active in this field and to forge a pact of responsibility between governments, environmental and socially responsible private businesses and a mobilized civil society.
Urgency calls for moving past awe and astonishment and to commence concrete action.