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October 8, 2007 | by  | in Features |
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Saving the world, One Declaration at a Time

An eyewitness account of UN action on climate change

With the inconvenient truth concerning climate change now generally accepted as fact, Salient Feature Writer Nicola Kean caught up with the United Nations non- governmental conference on climate change in New York, to see how they are going green and why the world will benefit.

“GET on board, we’re goin’ green,” the room full of delegates chorused. “We can make our planet clean, like a forest ever green. Make your move and join the scene, we’re goin’ green ….Goin’ Green!” I pinched myself on the arm, to check that this wasn’t some sort of jet lag induced nightmare. But I was wide awake in New York, at the United Nations non-governmental conference on climate change*, surrounded by people singing about saving trees. In such situations, I usually adopt a strategy that got me through six years of high school assemblies and doubtlessly gets Britney Spears through many a gig: lip-sync and look happy.

Singing about saving trees wasn’t really what I expected of a UN conference. Especially a conference that was promoted as examining the scientific evidence behind what is perhaps is the most pressing threat to the world as we know it, and what we can all do about it. But, as I was to quickly discover, aside from taking public transport and using energy efficient light bulbs, there’s little we can actually do without massive intergovernmental co-operation.

But to begin with, a little person-to-person co-operation wouldn’t have gone astray. “I’m from Salient,” I announced to the woman behind the counter at the UN media centre, handing her my passport.
Salient?” She grimaced at the horrific passport picture.
“Yeah. In New Zealand.”
“And which media organisation are you from?”
“Say-li-ent,” I said slowly, having discovered already that the populace of New York (and quite possibly the whole country) didn’t seem to understand my accent. Winston Churchill once said that the British and Americans were allies separated by a common language. I was starting see what he was on about.
“I’m with the student journalism programme.”

The woman raised an eyebrow at me. I fixed her with a desperate gaze. I had arrived in New York that morning – smelly, late and sans luggage – wanting more than anything to sleep. Preferably on a flat surface. I didn’t want to have just spent three quarters of an hour wandering around the UN complex getting yelled at by security guards – with guns – because I couldn’t find the media office. The whole time, it was actually just across the road.

“My name is Nicola Kean and I’m from Salient magazine, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.”
She slowly flicked through a file of media passes and finally slid mine across the counter.
“There you go.”

This yellow laminated piece of paper was my four-day ticket into the UN complex, a sprawling, majestic set of buildings overlooking the city’s imaginatively titled East River. As I would later find out, the land was donated by one of the Rockefellers and is considered international territory – which means that, contrary to State law, you can smoke inside (and probably run from the law). But we weren’t here to smoke, or even to run from the law. Alongside around 20 other student journalists and approximately 1,200 delegates from non governmental organisations all around the world, I was here to learn about climate change.

Since Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth started making the film festival rounds last year, the issue of climate change has been the inescapable dinner table topic du jour. Suddenly, climate change – or global warming, depending on how politically correct you’re feeling – has gone from something that you did a really crappy science project about in primary school to something that’s actually happening. And, according to the latest scientific reports, it’s happening right now.

Here’s the basic science, al la Gore: the earth has an atmosphere partially made of carbon dioxide – that stuff that you breathe out (as do, unfortunately, factories, cars and cows’ bums). A little bit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is fine, but with the amount that is currently being produced, extra heat from the sun is trapped inside the atmosphere instead of escaping back into space.

The result is an increase in temperature and, according to some, a global catastrophe on massive levels. Professor of Geosciences at Princeton University and former environmental activist Michael Oppenheimer says that at the current levels of carbon production, we could be looking at a one to six degree increase in temperature before the end of the century. That may not sound like very much, but a temperature increase of between 1.5 and 2.5 degrees is enough to put thirty percent of species at risk of extinction.

Although humans aren’t on the extinction list just yet, climate change can potentially have a serious impact on our existence. Global warming will bring more and increasingly severe heat waves and storms, an increase in water borne diseases and have massive implications for food production and security. The effects that are already been observed include increased rainfall in some areas and drought in others and, most frightening of all, the melting of the polar ice caps – potentially leading to an increase in sea level.

For the Chairman of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Rajendra Pachauri, ignoring the impacts of climate change is as futile – almost literally – as King Canute attempting to stop the incoming tide. Of the 12 warmest years on record, 11 are from the past 12 years. And warmer winters aren’t the only effect we’re seeing. Sea levels have already risen 17 centimetres over the past 100 years, and are projected to rise another 19 to 50 centimetres throughout the 21st century.

While sceptics argue that the increased levels of carbon in the environment are part of a climate cycle, Oppenheimer says that there is a scientific consensus on the existence of climate change. “There is room for doubt on the rate of warming and the specifics of when particular impacts will occur. But the generic outlines of the impacts are becoming clear,” he says. “There is also plenty of uncertainty on costs of reducing emissions. But the general outlines of the climate problem are now in place.”

Indeed, the latest IPCC report states that it is “very likely” that the increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are due to human activity. “Very likely” may not sound all that convincing to you, but for scientists, who by trade can never be 100 per cent certain of anything, that’s pretty much the equivalent of throwing your hands in the air, running around in circles and screaming that we’re all going to die.

“There probably remains time to reduce emissions sufficiently to avoid the largest impacts,” adds Oppenheimer with a flourish of optimism, “like mass extinction of species or loss of a significant chunk of one of the ice sheets. Other changes, like increases in heat waves and a moderately higher sea level, are more or less inevitable.” As another speaker at the conference would later say, humanity has three options: mitigation, adaptation or suffering.

For New Zealand, the long term outlook is decidedly average – in the east, climate change is likely to bring increased rain and in the west, increased drought. “New Zealand is large enough so that for a modest additional warming it may experience manageable change,” says Oppenheimer, “but for a larger warming, New Zealand, too, will face big problems.”

While New Zealanders won’t find themselves homeless, we may find ourselves providing refuge for our neighbours from Pacific Islands that may not be so lucky. “Small island nations face a grim future,” Oppenheimer continues. “Almost certainly they face shrinkage and, in some cases, becoming uninhabitable.”

In stark contrast to Oppenheimer and most other academics I’ve happened across in my years at university, Judy Kuriansky – one of the organisers of the student journalism programme – was willing to pose for the cameras. In fact, the slight blonde was wearing a suit as colourful as her history. She’s a sex therapist, a psychology lecturer at Columbia University, a psychology commentator on TV and in newspapers, and a disaster psychology expert.

Called “Dr Judy” by her colleagues and worshipped by her students, she is the type of person that some would say only America could produce – a relentless self-promoter. Grabbing a famous Japanese musician and holding up the conference programme, she gave a well practised grin as the flash bulbs illuminated. Along with the other student journalists, I was standing behind a velvet rope, outside a theatre somewhere inside the bowels of the UN complex, while various minor celebrities posed and pouted like it was Oscar night. There was even a red carpet. It was day three, and time for dressing up.

We had been invited to cover an event celebrating Live Earth. Kevin Wall, I was told excitedly, was going to be there. Not having the faintest clue who Kevin Wall was, I nodded, smiled and Googled him later. Wall’s story goes something like this: he saw Gore’s film and got really inspired, so he produced Live Earth – an awareness raising series of entertainment events following in the well-bastardised footsteps of Live Aid. While Wall’s intentions were good, he’s been levelled with a fair amount of criticism for the carbon-producing nature of the very events that were trying to bring a stop to climate change.

Suitably prepped and dressed – Wal-Mart jandals aside – I showed up to be handed background information and a list of approved questions. These included, for the reality TV pop-tart hosting the evening, “who designed your dress?” and for Wall, “which were your favourite Live Earth acts?” Indignant, I embroiled myself in a ten minute argument with the organiser, a very tall daughter of African diplomats. “No dramas”, were her final words on the matter, before rushing off to set up.

Wall and some other Live Earth noteworthies were paraded in front of our cameras and then lead past us for questions. Not much bothered with asking someone called Greta Cavzazzoni about why she wanted to take time out from being a supermodel to work with UN AIDS, I stood back and guzzled the free drinks on offer. The UN was fast turning out to be far less inspiring than I had originally anticipated.

But help was at hand, and the final day’s proceedings – as promised – were about solutions, if not quite concrete ones. The metaphorical hacky-sac that delegates tossed around was the success of the Montreal Protocol, the international agreement that has effectively reduced, and will most likely eventually fix, the hole in the ozone layer. Beginning in 1987, more than 100 substances containing the chemicals that destroyed the ozone layer were controlled and eventually phased out. The difference between Montreal and how the global community is attempting to deal with climate change is that developed countries – who are making the vast majority of carbon dioxide emissions – have stepped up the plate.

For Paul Horowitz, the Deputy Executive Secretary of the UN Environment Programme, the global approach taken in the case of the depletion of the ozone layer is a cause for hope in combating climate change. And he believes in the importance of non-governmental organisations – a sector that most of the delegates belonged to – in catalysing the issue. However, he says there has to be a one hundred percent consensus. Which brings us back to the US, and their failure to be involved in the Kyoto Protocol – a not-quite-global initiative to reduce carbon emissions.

The problem is, to avoid serious impacts, carbon emissions have to peak (by the IPCC’s estimate at least) by 2015 – which is not long for some seriously large asses to get into gear.

Sitting inside the massive, acoustically-challenged General Assembly room, the irony of it all struck me. It was quite possibly somewhere between 25 and 30 degrees outside, and humid as hell on a bad day, but I shivered my way through most of the sessions. When it comes to air conditioning, for the UN it seems to be one of those do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do kind of things. But, as Haya Rashen Al-Khalifa the 2007 President of the General Assembly says, the UN is trying its best to go green. In fact, member nations have recently approved a one billion dollar, six year upgrade of the New York headquarters.

Al-Khalifa says it is the UN’s responsibility to take a leadership role on the issue of climate change. A “global consensus for tackling climate change” is what’s needed to save the world from the ravages of heat waves and floods. But, to be the party pooper, it’s unlikely that much progress can be made without the input of the United States – by far the largest emitted of carbon dioxide per head of population. Oppenheimer concurs that “unless the US takes the lead, it would seem that global, coordinated action is unlikely to occur.”

But, for the meantime, the UN always has declarations. “For the sake of future generations”, the declaration issued at the conference read, “we urge that government and industry leaders, the UN, other international organisation and the whole of civil society to partner behind concrete solutions and to effectively implement them.”

And until then, the great melt will continue. But at least we’ll be able to import strawberries from Greenland.

* The author would like to thank VUWSA, the School of History, Political Science, International Relations and Philosophy, Councillor Celia Wade- Brown, and her Mum for their partial sponsorship of her trip.

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About the Author ()

Nicola Kean: feature writer, philanthropist, womanly woman. Nicola is the smallest member of the Salient team, but eats really large pieces of lasagne. Favourites include 80s music, the scent of fresh pine needles and long walks on the beach.

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