Only statesmanship can save our ship from climate peril

Only statesmanship can save our ship from climate peril
Water will become scarcer in sprawling settlements such as Nuevo Pachacutec on the Pacific coast as the population of Peru's capital surges and global warming thaws Andean glaciers.

Immediate concerns - be they terrorism, Ebola or the euro - pale into insignificance compared with the disaster that awaits if urgent action is not taken to slow down and eventually reverse the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs), mainly carbon dioxide (CO2).

Global problems call for global collective action, and global warming is no exception.

What the world needs is statesmanship and not the pursuit of narrow national interests as commonly seen in diplomacy.

This is especially true of the major world power, the United States, which took the lead in rebuilding Europe after World War II and in establishing a world economic order under the Bretton Woods agreement.

More recently, it cobbled together a "coalition of the willing" and arm-twisted the United Nations to turf out Saddam Hussein and his elusive weapons of mass destruction.

Now the US leads efforts to combat threats to global order such as terrorism, Ebola and financial crises. But when it comes to climate change, the world community, and particularly the US, has not been able to go beyond pious proclamations and band-aid actions.

Singaporean Kishore Mahbubani, an influential thinker, used a compelling metaphor in a different context that also applies to the failure of collective action to address global warming.

According to him, countries were once like a flotilla of more than a hundred separate boats and all that was needed was a way to keep them from colliding with one another.

But today we live in 193 separate cabins on the same boat. But this boat has 193 captains and crews, each claiming exclusive responsibility for one cabin! However, it has no captain or crew to take care of the boat as a whole.

The fact that this problem has been caused by the rich industrial nations is indisputable - until the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere remained steady at 280 parts per million (ppm).

But from then on it shot up and currently exceeds 400 ppm, a level unprecedented in the past one million years.

According to the World Meteorological Organisation, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere in 2013 was 42 per cent above the level that prevailed before the Industrial Revolution.

The increase of GHGs from human activity has caused the planet to warm by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the pre-industrial era, which is causing ice to melt, rising sea levels, more intense heatwaves and more frequent cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) laid down the principles to inform a global treaty to cut GHGs.

These are equity and "common but differentiated responsibility" (CBDR) whereby rich countries were to take the lead in addressing climate change, given their level of economic development and their historical contribution to the problem.

The UNFCCC is the only architecture for negotiating a meaningful and binding treaty to cut GHG emissions. Such a treaty, however, remains elusive even 22 years after the UNFCCC. Each year, countries meet to discuss and debate a global treaty, but this remains an exercise in futility.

The recently concluded 20th such meeting in Lima produced nothing substantive other than a promise by countries to come up with plans to reduce GHG emissions, the so-called "Intended Nationally Determined Contributions".

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