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Stern warning about environmental disaster

Brandon Hamber

"Look South" Column published on Polity, 6 December 2006

If you are feeling upbeat about life, I have the medicine: read a copy of the Stern Report. The report, commissioned by the UK government and written by Sir Nicholas Stern, former chief economist at the World Bank, focuses on the potential impact of climate change. It is gloomy reading. In short, we are destroying the planet and dramatic climate change is on the way. Stern concludes that “the scientific evidence is now overwhelming: climate change is a serious global threat, and it demands an urgent global response”.

A small increase of 2 oC when living in the freezing northern hemisphere might seem like a blessing, but it is no laughing matter. According to Stern, carbon emissions have already pushed up global temperatures by half a degree. If no action is taken, there is a 75% chance that global temperatures will rise by between 2 oC and 3 oC over the next 50 years. There is a 50% chance they could rise 5 oC.

This might be great for sunbathing in some parts of the world, but in others the consequences will be dire. Climate change will affect access to water, food production, health and the environment, with hundreds of millions of people suffering hunger, water shortages and coastal flooding. Poorer countries will disproportionally feel these effects. By the middle of the century, 200-million people may become permanently displaced owing to rising sea levels, floods and droughts. Melting glaciers could increase the risk of flood to small islands and cities like Tokyo, New York, Cairo and London. Around 15% to 40% of species will potentially face extinction after only 2 oC of warming, not to mention ocean acidification, which will destroy marine ecosystems and many fish stocks, and so the report goes on. Stern also weighs up the economic impact. He notes that extreme weather could reduce global GDP by up to 1%. A 2 oC to 3 oC rise in temperatures could reduce global economic output by 3%, and a 5 oC temperature rise could mean up to 10% of global output being lost. The worse-case scenario is a 20% fall in global consumption for every person.

Of course, scientists have known all this for some time, but, typically, humans only take notice of something when it bashes down their own door. Even when this happens, we spend much time thinking of someone else to blame. Rich countries like to argue that it is poor, developing countries that are poisoning the atmosphere with their drive toward development and less sophisticated technologies. Developing countries, in turn, argue that it is the industrialised countries that are to blame, with their mass consumption and production. And you and I do little because we suffer from the delusion that our own consumption of fuels or recycling of waste is a drop in the proverbially acidifying ocean. So the cycle continues.

Stern is unequivocal that all are at fault and all have a role to play in averting catastrophe. Consumer demand for heavily polluting goods and services must be curtailed, global energy supply needs to be more efficient and reduced, deforestation reversed, and cleaner energy and transport technology promoted. These might sound like grand ideas beyond individual reach and the responsibility of governments, but charity, or, in this case, saving the planet, starts at home. So here comes the lecture: ditch the petrol-guzzling car and try walking somewhere, for a change, splash out a few extra bucks on energy-efficient appliances, recycle your waste, turn off lights and do not leave electrical appliances on standby, shower instead of bath and, while you're at it, get one of those little wind-up chargers for your cellphone and get winding. Being an ecowarrior is no longer the preserve of a few nutters on the fringe; it is a necessity.

*To download the Stern Report visit http://tinyurl.com/vgzxv.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity, see http://www.polity.co.za/pol/opinion/brandon/.

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