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Update on International Climate Change Treaty

NewsNotes, January-February 2009

Without an atmosphere to trap heat, life on earth would perish from the cold. Fortunately, a balance of atmospheric gases keeps the earth’s surface temperature at an average of 57º F. However, during the past century the global temperature has risen by one degree; the 10 warmest years on record occurred in the last 15 years. This is doubtlessly due to an accumulation of gases in the earth’s atmosphere due to fossil fuel burning, deforestation and population growth and is commonly referred to as the greenhouse effect. This global warming causes atmospheric imbalance resulting in erratic climatic events experienced particularly in prolonged drought, intensifying storms and rising sea levels.

This is the scenario that informs the work of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the overall international treaty that deals with global warming. The Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC, which expires in 2012, establishes legally binding commitments for the reduction of particular greenhouse gases produced by industrialized nations, as well as general commitments for all member countries.

Since the UN began its serious work of convincing the world’s nations to reduce greenhouse gases, contrary to expectations, the amount of dangerous atmospheric pollution has increased. This is due in part to the industrialization of newly developed and developing countries. However, industrialized nations are also to blame. The U.S., which has not signed on to the Kyoto Protocol, has been particularly resistant to modifying its greenhouse gas output for economic reasons, citing the fact that the Protocol requires more of countries that are long term greenhouse gas emitters (such as the U.S.) than of countries that are developing or are newly developed industrially. This could give newly industrialized countries an economic advantage over the U.S.

The UN is currently working toward a new protocol to succeed the Kyoto Protocol. Ideally, the new protocol will be ready by December 2009 so that it can be ratified by UN member states and in place when the Kyoto Protocol expires. Aside from establishing mandatory greenhouse gas reductions, a major aspect of the new document unfolds around the increasing demand on the part of non-industrialized nations that they be assisted financially and technologically to combat the effects of global warming in their states, especially in Least Developed States and in Island Nations. This assistance is fair as these states are vulnerable to the effects of global warming while they have had practically no part in producing the conditions that cause it.

For instance, Maryknoll Sisters working in the Marshall Islands and on the island of Yap in Micronesia have observed that the coral reef is rapidly deteriorating with the loss of various species of fish and other sea creatures. Soil, which at best is shallow on the islands, is eroding at an alarming rate. Both these losses mean the loss of livelihood for many people.

A meeting of the parties involved in establishing the new protocol was held in December 2008 in Poznan, Poland. Some progress in establishing channels for financial and technological transfers was made at this meeting. However, due to the current global economic crisis it was difficult to convince developed nations to pledge the large sums of money that will be necessary to undertake measures to mitigate the effects of global warming as well as measures to adapt to the new climate conditions in developing countries.

During the meeting it was evident that the role of the U.S. is pivotal for moving forward in the creation of and implementation of a treaty that will draw all nations into an agreement that will be for the well-being of the whole world. It is hoped that the Obama administration will be proactive in creating the new protocol with all the conditions necessary for stabilizing greenhouse gases during the coming years for the sake of generations to come and for the sake of the entire earth community.

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