Climate change: It's now or never

In an open letter to delegates at the Montreal environmental summit, beginning today, campaigner Mark Lynas explains why action on climate change can no longer be stalled

Monday 28 November 2005 01:00 GMT

I'm scared. For 15 years I've watched international progress on climate change get slower and slower, even while the pace of global warming seems to get ever more rapid. With time running out for the global climate, your meeting in Montreal represents a last chance for action. Here are a few suggestions I would urge you to consider as you gather to debate the future of the planet.


As the politicians dither, whole nations and ecosystems are shifting from the "still time" file to the "too late" file as vital climatic tipping points are crossed. There's now a good chance that 2005 will beat 1998 as the warmest year on record, the high temperatures undeniably giving a boost to the devastating hurricanes that battered the US coast this summer. With northern polar sea ice also declining to record lows this year, it looks too as if some kind of polar tipping point has already been crossed, making further rapid Arctic warming unstoppable.


Agree first principles. The 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, father to Kyoto, stated the need to avoid "dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system". No one made it clear what this might mean. Now is the time for you to agree on what constitutes "dangerous". In my opinion, this means raising the planet's temperature past two degrees above pre-industrial levels. In order to avoid crossing this critical threshold, you must agree to stabilise concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at 400 parts per million, giving us only a decade before time runs out.

Cross the two degrees threshold, and we'll likely lose the Greenland ice sheet - flooding coastal cities across the world - as well as coral reefs, the Amazon rainforest, and many of the world's major breadbaskets, as deserts sweep across continental interiors.


Global temperatures will rocket past the two degrees limit unless rapidly developing nations such as Brazil, India and China agree to their own emissions targets, just as industrialised nations have done for Kyoto's first phase (due to end in 2012). In order to get the developing world to come to the table, rich countries' governments must offer a reasonable deal. Poor countries must be able to grow as rich countries contract towards a common goal of per capita emissions equality between nations. This is the contraction and convergence principle, surely the basic starting point for any post-2012 framework.


Having refused to ratify Kyoto, America will be officially exiled to the sidelines in Montreal, giving it much less power to subvert and undermine the negotiations than has been the case in past years. But expect to see representatives from the American delegation huddled in corners with the Chinese and Indians, gently urging them not to agree to European suggestions that it is now time for developing countries to consider taking on their own post-Kyoto targets.

Don't listen to them. Instead, give the Americans an ultimatum: either they agree to rejoin the Kyoto process and cut their own emissions or face ostracism from the world community. Countries that have taken on emissions cuts can't afford to see their efforts undermined by free-riders like the US, so it's time to consider economic and trade sanctions if the US won't play fair. This also goes for Australia, which follows America's lead on global warming.


Serious cash needs to be put aside for an adaptation fund to compensate countries and regions left uninhabitable by global warming. This will include atoll nations such as Tuvalu, soon to be flooded by sea-level rise, and drought-stricken areas such as northern China, where hundreds of thousands of people are already environmental refugees.

If you had met Ye Yinxin, the only remaining inhabitant of what is now a crumbling ghost town in Gansu province, northern China, you would see the importance of this. I met Ye while researching my book High Tide. Ye's life is a solitary one of fetching brackish water for her few animals and trying to scratch a living from the sandy soil.

Spending all day alone in her abandoned village, she has plenty of time to remember the better years gone by, when neighbours would gather to swap stories - before the weather changed and drought reigned supreme. Minutes after I left her one-room, mud-brick house, a terrible dust storm turned day into twilight as blood-red clouds swept overhead. There's no compensation fund to pay Ye or her displaced fellow villagers for the climatic ravages they've already suffered.

Also in line for compensation will be water-stressed countries such as Peru. When I visited in 2002, I was armed with pictures of how the glaciers of the Andes had looked when my geologist father worked in them, in 1980. To my surprise and shock, entire glaciers have already disappeared, in the space of just two decades. Peru's glaciers aren't just beautiful to look at: they're crucial natural reservoirs keeping rivers running all year round to the arid Pacific coast where most of the country's population lives. Once the glaciers disappear from entire mountain ranges, millions of people face the loss of their freshwater supplies. This situation is replicated across Asia, where rivers originating in the Himalayas also face the loss of glacial-origin water.


The EU and other Kyoto-ratifying countries need to get their act together and ensure they actually meet the protocol's targets. It's no good being self-righteous about the Bush administration while doing precious little at home to cut emissions. The EU, Canada and Japan are on course to miss their targets.

Margaret Beckett announced recently, without a trace of shame, that Britain wouldn't meet its self-declared target of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent by 2010. Then Tony Blair, the man who has done so much to put climate change on the international agenda, seemed to stab Kyoto in the back by questioning whether setting targets for greenhouse gas emissions is any longer the best way forward.

And as if to emphasise our Government's moral collapse on the climate change issue, the UK is now taking the EU to court in order to force it to allow an extra 20 million tonnes of CO2 emissions from British industry. This is all the more disappointing, given that the UK has presidency of the EU at the moment and therefore leads the powerful European delegation. Unfortunately, it looks as if the tough and visionary leadership we need in Montreal may have to come from elsewhere.


Listen to the noise on the streets outside your tightly sealed conference centre and hotel rooms. All over the world people are mobilising to demand stronger action from governments on climate change. Rather than feeling scared and despairing about global warming, people are getting angry about the lack of progress we've seen over 15 years of lengthy negotiations.

Major demonstrations are planned everywhere from Istanbul to Moscow on 3 December. In London, thousands are expected to attend a Campaign Against Climate Change march, via Downing Street to the American Embassy, making it the biggest climate change demonstration ever on British soil.

The marchers will demand leadership from the politicians on what is increasingly acknowledged as being a survival challenge to the entire human species. The protesters will want to see action. Now is the time to deliver.

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