© Richard Grossman MD, 2009
“I refuse to believe that it is too late, and that we cannot do anything about [global climate change]. Copenhagen is our date with destiny.”
Mohamed Nasheed, President of Maldives
Good news! We in the United States can decrease carbon emissions! In just two years we have cut our greenhouse gas (GHG) generation by nine percent.
Last month’s column outlined the goals of the UN Climate Change Conference to be held in Copenhagen next month. We are pinning our hopes on Copenhagen for a treaty to limit carbon emissions and thus control climate change. Hopenhagen.org offers a platform to urge international leaders to reach an agreement on emissions.
Perhaps the greatest problem to be faced in Copenhagen is the great economic disparities between countries. Some are extraordinarily wealthy, while people in others live on just a dollar or two a day. In the rich USA we don’t want to give up any of our prosperity, while those in developing areas want to use fossil fuels to improve their standard of living.
Prosperity in the United States was built on the backs of slaves, as well as pillage of the rich, sparsely populated land we appropriated from indigenous people. Slavery was not rejected just for ethical reasons in the 1860s; we had learned how to harness fossil fuels. They are the primary reason for our opulence since then.
Global climate change threatens poorer areas in many different ways. Many countries in Africa are already suffering from desertification. With climate change they will become even less able to support their populations. Recent climate modeling supports the prediction made years ago that hundreds of millions people will starve to death this century.
River flows will decrease from the Hindu Kush as the climate heats up and glaciers melt. This will cause crowded southern Asia to suffer from dwindling grain harvests. Many people in Bangladesh live just a few feet above sea level, and already suffer when hit by cyclones. This will worsen as the oceans rise.
The quote at the beginning of this article is from an exceptional speech delivered this month at the Climate Vulnerable Forum. Scientists predict that the island nation of Maldives will be inundated within a century by rising sea level. Its citizens have no high ground to move to. President Nasheed convened an underwater cabinet meeting to make the point—the ministers donned scuba gear and met under 20 feet of water! The Forum, consisting of eleven developing countries that are most threatened by climate change, met for the first time earlier this month—above water. Read Nasheed’s entire speech at: policyinnovations.org.
What can be done to decrease the human impact on the natural world, including almost eliminating carbon emissions, and still be fair to developing nations?
An obvious way to decrease carbon emissions is to decrease the number of people who cause emissions. Although not popular, investing in family planning has been shown to be the least expensive way to lower GHG production. Remember: 200 million women worldwide want to limit their family size but don’t have access to modern contraception! The impact of limiting family size is greatest in the USA, where each child averted has been estimated to save almost 10,000 tons of CO2 from being emitted.
Another method of decreasing emissions will especially benefit developing countries. One of the tragedies of our era is that rainforests are being destroyed at an alarming rate. Most rainforests are in poorer countries, where people sell the wood to raise their standard of living. Farmers also burn trees to prepare fields for planting. Not only does burning remove a huge sink for GHG, the flames are responsible for a fifth of all CO2 emissions.
Since rainforests are so valuable, why not pay to preserve them? This has proven to be a very successful strategy. One of the first times it was used was to preserve the forest in northern Mexico where one of the last remaining flocks of endangered thickbilled parrots (Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha) nest.
Although some of the recent decrease in carbon emissions was due to the economic downturn, some is because people are making conscious decisions to consume less fossil fuel. Locally, LPEA’s Green Power and 4CORE conservation programs are excellent examples of effective conservation programs.
For the sake of our progeny we need to stop global climate change. For humanitarian reasons it needs to be stopped with economic justice for our poorer neighbors. The Copenhagen meeting is key; let us hope that it is successful.
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