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The climate crisis and your personal role

Dear friends,
I have been silent on this channel for a long time. Now the situation obliges me to speak up and ask you for help. Humanity is at a crossroads. I am sure you have heard about climate change in the last months or weeks. I am sure you are aware that it is a huge problem. It is actually the biggest challenge that humanity faces today.
My question for you is this:
Have you thought about the consequences of climate change for yourself, in your private life and your plans for the future?
I have just recently really done that, and I don't like the outlook at all.
The situation
I will describe the situation from two angles: First, the dynamics of climate and the natural and human systems depending on it. Second, the political dimension with actors and the correlation of forces.
The atmosphere is rapidly heating up. The two main drivers are the burning of fossil fuels (petroleum, coal, gas) - this is the bigger one, and deforestation - this is the smaller one. They drive up CO2 levels in the atmosphere which are leading to a hotter climate. Pre-industrial CO2 levels were at 280 ppm (parts per million) and now we are at 387 ppm. Until recently, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the authoritative international body on climate change science believed that a stabilization at 450 ppm would do the job of preventing climate chaos. Unfortunately this is no longer up-to-date. After new findings, we have to get back down to 350 ppm as fast as possible. Other figures you may hear in this context are the goals of 2°Celsius above pre-industrial levels. That is the official goal of the European Union. Unfortunately, that goal as well has turned out to be too weak. The Maldives (a small state in the Indian Ocean) would disappear at 2°C warming. There are several things that make us fear a run-away climate change which accelerates itself: the permafrost soils in the North which may melt and release an enormous amount of methane (CH4), which is a greenhouse gas much more powerful than CO2, the melting glaciers and polar icecaps which reflect much of the sun's energy back into space because they are white (the albedo effect) and if they melt are "replaced" by heat-absorbing water or rocks.
The ocean's sea level is going to rise and swallow not only the Maldives, but also part of Bangladesh (one of the most densely populated countries on Earth) and many other coastal zones. Because of higher CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, the oceans which absorb part of that gas will become more acidic. This, together with higher temperatures kills off corals. Most of them will disappear in this century. Coral reefs are important for young fish and an estimated 1 billion people rely on their contribution of fish to their diet. Agriculture in its current dominant form (big industrialized monocultures) is not very resistant to a changing climate. World population is still rising and soil fertility is declining and the total amount of arable land is also declining due to erosion, desertification and salinization. So we will have ever less space upon which to feed an ever bigger population. The first countries to break down will be those that are not self-sufficient in terms of food and cannot afford to pay for it. But in general, everybody will suffer economically much more than we would if we started making relatively drastic changes now in terms of phasing out fossil fuels and investing into low-carbon technology. The so-called Stern Report to the UK government has shown that.
We now have a window of opportunity to stop climate chaos from happening, but it is only open for a few years (maybe about 2012 or 2015). Once ice-caps and permafrost soils have melted, there will be no turning back.
From the political angle, we have taken two steps to address climate change so far: First the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that was signed at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 and establishes a "common but differentiated responsibility". This makes a lot of sense, since the industrialized countries basically caused the problem, but everyone gets affected. In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol was signed which establishes that industrialized countries (so-called Annex-I-Countries) have to reduce their emissions, and the others don't. But the reductions agreed on in Kyoto are a meager 5% as compared to 1990 levels for the period of 2008-2012. And only for Annex-I-countries. And the US didn't ratify. As the biggest emitter (now taken over by China), and without any regulation for all of the other ("developing") countries, the overall emissions have increased since then, not decreased.
So now, a new deal has to be found to replace Kyoto after 2012. The "date with destiny" as Maldives president Rasheed calls it is in Copenhagen, Denmark from December 7 to 18. Of course, the correlation of forces has been taken into account. The USA, still in economic and military terms the biggest nation on the planet, is the one that has the highest per-capita emissions. Over 20 tons of CO2 are emitted by every US citizen. Europe emits about 10 tons per capita, China 5, India less than 2, just as many poor countries that are even below 1 ton per capita. Even though the problem is caused by the rich few, all are going to suffer the same. In fact, the poor are going to suffer MORE, because they have less protection against failing harvests, extreme weather conditions or rising food prices.
So, it is obvious that the rich countries, and in particular the US have an enormous responsibility. But they are not living up to that. Obama has put 17% reduction until 2020 on the table. But that's compared to 2005 instead of 1990. For 1990 figures that means 3 or 4% reduction. Of course that can't work. Because so-called "developing" countries, especially China, are not going to take on any targets if the biggest contributor to the problem, the US does not drastically reduce its own numbers and help them with their own mitigation (emission reduction) and adaptation (living with the effects of climate change) efforts as well.
A coalition of vulnerable countries headed by the Maldives is calling for a "Survival Pact" and have gone ahead themselves by announcing their strategy to become carbon-neutral in only ten years! Civil society is also mobilizing on a global scale. The 24th of October has been called the biggest political demonstration in human history, because in thousands of places all around the globe people called upon leaders to take action and get us down to 350ppm as fast as possible. (See here for a video: http://www.youtube.com/v/noPcVKf24rk)
But oil and car industry have a huge influence on our political decision-making. In addition, our "democracies" are working in a way that forces politicians to optimize the short term, taking the long term less seriously. Add to that, that we (in the rich countries) are the last to be badly affected, the first who have to commit to changes in our lifestyle and the only ones who can really change the situation.
Together these factors make it seem difficult to get to a strong commitment by industrialized countries. But without that, China won't move. China has already mentioned that they would be willing to reduce 40-45% until 2020 not per capita, but per GDP. This means, if the economy keeps growing, they will continue to emit more and more. But in comparison with the US, they would still be "cleaner".
The solution
The solution to this big mess is actually quite simple and straightforward:
First, we need to agree on a GLOBAL CARBON BUDGET that is in line with IPCC recommendations to stabilize the climate. There is not much to say against a global cap that solves the problem. This may be set a bit higher (and consider bigger impacts which have to be managed - ideally with a bigger Adaptation Fund to help the climate change victims) or lower (thus reducing adaptation cost and the overall scale of the problem). But there is wide consensus that more than 2°C or 450ppm is neither acceptable nor sensible in any case. What is clear is that from now to 2020, emissions must be reduced noticeably(? Specificity is important here) and until 2050 must be reduced almost down to zero.
Second, we need to agree that all human beings are equal, thereby possessing both equal rights and equal responsibilities. This translates into an EQUAL PER CAPITA emission allowance, which can be easily deduced from the global carbon budget. This allowance will decrease as we move from the status quo (about 4ton per capita emissions today) to 2050 (carbon neutrality).
Of course, the high-emitting countries will have to change fastest and pay most of the price. But that reflects only their irresponsible lifestyle that must come to an end. But it is not actually hard. Europe has a higher quality of life with only half the emissions of the USA. (I mention this just to show that wasting more fuel doesn't necessarily get you a better life.) Low-carbon technologies such as renewable energies, energy efficiency, decentralized local economies and backyard gardening are already widely available but are not yet dominant because under current rules it is just so much easier and cheaper to do everything by burning fossil fuels. That must stop and it can easily be done with a global agreement.
What you can do
Because a global framework is of utmost importance for guiding the direction of the world economy, our leaders have to forge a strong agreement in Copenhagen from December 7 to 18. And we, the citizens of this world, have to oblige them to do so. So I would like to invite you to join the global movement from your city and make your voice heard.
On December 11th, all over the planet candlelight vigils (called "Vigil for Survival") will be realized. On http://www.350.org/vigil you can find out whether one is already happening in your city. If so, you could join it and invite all your friends and family. If not, you could even register one (as I did for San Cristóbal de las Casas). Just pick a central or symbolic spot, enter the place you set for meeting in the database and let everyone in your life know about it.
Additionally, I invite you to participate in online actions by avaaz.org, hopenhagen.org, www.action-pact.org or any other group in your country (I have put together a little list here: http://kjells.a.wiki-site.com/index.php/Climate_Change#Action)
I find it so important to mobilize now, because this moment will not repeat itself. You have a responsibility for your own life, but also that of your children and grandchildren. They cannot do this for you. You have to do it for them.
With hopeful wishes for all of us and for the planet,
P.S.: I have applied to be sent to Copenhagen as a Citizen Ambassador of "Hopenhagen". If you would like to support me, please go to http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/11/19/hopenhagen-ambassador-con_n_363672.html?slidenumber=qTK9QEG/CXM%3D#slide_image and vote for me until December 4th. (You will have to sign into the Huffington Post with your name and email or with your facebook account first.) Thank you. This is not so important, the important actions are the ones mentioned above!


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