Rising sea levels prompt rising global concern

These UN climate change conferences seem to end up being weaker, less committed and less focused with each passing year.

These UN climate change conferences seem to end up being weaker, less committed and less focused with each passing year just as climate change angst among many people continues to rise.

Two weeks of talks in Doha that included delegates from 200 countries ended Saturday with an agreement to extend the Kyoto protocol through to 2020. The 1997 protocol was launched as an umbrella pact to get countries to limit their output of greenhouse gases and mitigate global warming. The agreement expires this year but the extension was put in place as an interim measure while a wider global treaty is hammered out.

Or maybe not, if the mood at Doha was anything to go by.

Canada opted out of Kyoto last year. The U.S. never signed on and had no intention of doing so unless China and other rapidly developing countries signed in too. The problem is that the current extension will only address about 15 per cent of global emissions which will do nothing to impact climate change. Canada chose to remain out of Kyoto and Japan, New Zealand, and Russia also opted out.

Much has changed since the birth of Kyoto. The last ten years have been the warmest on record and despite cyclic dips in temperatures from year to year the trend has continued to be one of warming characterized by extreme weather events — droughts, storms, floods, and wildfires.

Ice sheets continue to melt. More than 4 trillion tonnes of ice have melted from Greenland and Antarctica in the past 20 years. Greenland is losing ice mass at five times the rate of the early 1990s and this year saw over 600,000 square kilometres more ice melt than has ever been previously recorded by satellites.

Some parts of the eastern Antarctica are gaining ice and one explanation for this is because ozone levels over the continent have dropped causing stratospheric cooling and increased winds over open water which then becomes frozen. However, the western part of the southern pole is losing twice as much ice.

The net result, according to the most reliable calculations to date, is that sea levels have risen 11 mm. It may not sound like much but it actually is. Just ask folks living on low lying islands.

In Doha, representatives from poor countries and island states pushed the envelope for developed nations to put together a timetable on how they were going to honour their three-year-old pledge to provide financial aid to the tune of $100 billion annually by 2020. The funds are supposed to help them cope with climate change and rising seas. But those rich nations – U.S., E.U., and Japan – are still grappling with the financial crisis and cliff walks and they were in no mood in Doha to get trapped into further commitments to climate finance.

Ducking the issue rattled many low-lying island states represented at the talks. They are the first responders to rising sea levels. Some climate change deniers scoff at that as an academic threat in the distant future. But on the South Pacific island of Tuvalu the crisis has already arrived.

This little nation of nine low-lying atolls some 26 square kilometres in size is already coping with disappearing beaches, submerged coconut trees, croplands ruined by encroaching seawater, and flooded roads. Tuvalu could be the first nation to be swallowed whole by rising seas. The New Zealand government has already committed to absorbing the entire Tuvalu population if disaster happens.

Delegates had to pull an all-nighter to get an agreement to extend Kyoto. They inked a plan to get a wider agreement by 2015 to go into effect when Kyoto finally expires.

Hopefully before we do.

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