Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Global Warming: Ignorance Is Not Bliss

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Global Warming: Ignorance Is Not Bliss

Article excerpt

Although confined to a wheelchair far from his native Nigeria, the founding father of African literature in English is as close to his beloved home as in student days, when revolt awoke the writer within

At the seventh international climate conference that opens in Bonn, Germany on July 16, scientists will confirm their alarming forecasts while political leaders are likely to give them the cold shoulder. Why?

Since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, nine years of negotiations on global warming have led virtually nowhere. Yet something has changed: the scientific community has gained extensive knowledge about the scope and causes of global warming, putting them in a more legitimate position than ever to alert governments. Meanwhile, public opinion is paying increasing attention to the problem. But, as Benjamin Dessus, a French expert and member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), writes: "we're standing before a real paradox: public will is still falling short, as though knowledge cripples action instead of prompting it."

Global warming is no longer a matter of controversy. The 20th century recorded the highest temperatures in 1,000 years, with an average increase of 0.6[degrees]C. The last two decades were the hottest of the 1900s.

It's a bitter loss not to meet the kind of people that I encountered in my father's house. They were not giants--in fact they were quite unimpressive in terms of what they achieved, but when they are gone, you realize that they were more important than you originally thought.

A series of phenomena accompanies rising temperatures. For example, almost all the world's glaciers have shrunk, while the thickness of the polar ice cap has decreased by 40 percent (from 3.1 to 1.8 metres) in 50 years.

Scientists have yet to establish clear links between global warming and the increase in natural disasters such as droughts, storms and floods. But as the French physicist Herve Le Treut says, these episodes "illustrate what might happen if global warming continues."

Is the current warming part of the cyclical phases that the planet has always experienced, or have greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activities created new conditions? Almost all experts now defend the second hypothesis. Atmospheric levels of the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide ([CO.sub.2]). are steadily on the rise, increasing from 280 parts per million (ppm) at the dawn of the industrial revolution to over 360 ppm today. Forecasters say the figure will climb to between 540 and 970 ppm by the late 21st century.

Drought and disease

The scientific community has been sounding the alarm for a long time. The first world climate conference took place in Geneva in 1979. Nine years later, the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations set up the IPCC, an international network of over 3,000 researchers and experts that published reports in 1990, 1995 and 2001, each more alarming than the last. When the latest one came out in early 2001, Klaus Toepfer, director of the United Nations Environment Programme, said that "the scientific consensus now sounds the alarm in all the world's capitals."

The new report upwardly revised previous forecasts, predicting that temperatures will climb between 1.4 and 5.8[degrees]C by 2100--an increase that has been "unprecedented for 10,000 years"--and that ocean levels will rise between 10 and 90 centimetres. The report's second section focuses on global warming's economic and social consequences. Areas where cholera and malaria are endemic will spread, harvests will decrease in tropical and sub-tropical regions and drought will strike arid and semi-arid zones more frequently.

Global warming will worsen the imbalance between north and south because it will have a greater impact on poor countries, and because "those with the least resources have the lowest ability to adapt. …

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