One day, we learn that the ice might be gone from Arctic sea by 2050.
The next, we hear that world governments met in Montreal to accelerate a deadline for phasing out the ozone-depleting chemicals known as chlorofluorocarbons—a milestone in combating global warming.
One day, we learn how cyclones are forming ever further north in the Indian Ocean, affecting the Seychelles for the first time in half a century, and that the island of Grenada, all but destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, was long deemed by Lloyds of London to lie outside the Caribbean hurricane belt. The next, world leaders in New York pledge their best efforts to tackle the problem that most agree has become a “defining issue of our era.''
These are the two faces of climate change—worsening cases of extreme weather, on the one hand, accompanied by scientific evidence that humankind is the cause. And on the other, clear signs that the world has awakened to the scale of the problem and, at long last, decided to do something about it.
This is the message from the recent high-level meeting on climate change at the United Nations. The idea was to spur conversation, to get global policy-makers together to make common cause in finding solutions to a common problem. In this, we succeeded beyond expectation. Certain words ran like a thread through our discussions: “urgency,” “action” and “now.”
It was the largest such meeting ever held, with more than 80 heads of state. And I sensed something remarkable happening, something transformative—a sea-change, whereby leaders showed themselves willing to put aside blame for the past and pose to themselves more forward-looking questions. Where do we go from here? What can we do, together, in the future? President Michelle Bachelet of Chile put it bluntly, likening our fragile planet to an island in the universe. “We can destroy it,” she said, “or save it.”
There was no shortage of bad news. Fishermen in Mauritius blame warmer weather for driving tuna into deeper waters, diminishing their catch and making it harder to earn a living. Unusually severe El Nino weather cost Peru 4.5 percent of its GDP last year.
We heard how melting glaciers in South Asia will mean severe shortages of water for half a billion people, and how much of northern China may become desert. Micronesia 's delegate worried openly about his country sinking beneath the rising seas. “How do we explain to our people, to future generations, that we have nothing for them,” he asked, meaning it literally.
But there was good news, too. Brazil says it has reduced deforestation in the Amazon basin by 50 percent. India is devoting 2 percent of GDP annually to flood control and food security programs, as well as mandating tough energy efficiency standards. We heard how California , the cradle for generations of technological revolutions, is mobilizing both politically and entrepreneurially to fight climate change.
All this sets the stage for an advance at the December climate change summit in Bali . We need a breakthrough—an agreement to launch negotiations for a comprehensive climate change deal that all nations can embrace. It will be difficult but I am optimistic. We are in a different place, today, than yesterday.
At our UN meeting, the international community made a clear commitment to change. Governments will pursue their own solutions—from mandatory emissions controls to market mechanisms like carbon-trading to new fuel efficiency technologies and conservation. This is as it should be; there are many paths to Rome . The important thing is that all agree: national policies should be coordinated within the United Nations, so that our work together is complementary and mutually reinforcing.
No less important is the shared sense of urgency. Henceforth, climate change will no longer be a primarily environmental concern. It has become a matter of strategic consequence—a core political issue for every government on earth. This represents a turning point, with enormous implications.
As a political issue, climate change becomes closely linked to economic development. The World Bank and UNDP will begin to explore ways of financing energy efficiency and anti-pollution programs in developing countries. We spoke of an Adaptation Fund that supplements international aid with money for climate change projects that benefit the whole world, not merely the countries that initiate them.
Trade and technology transfer incentives will be part of the equation. Wealthy nations must help provide incentives to poorer ones to take steps that help us all.
The lesson from Montreal and New York , one environmental expert noted, is that “curbing climate change may not be as hard as it looks.'' With political will, he suggested, comes results. Our job is to translate the spirit of New York into deeds in Bali .