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he last several decades have been a time of international soul-searching about the envi­ronment. More and more, we are realizing that the Industrial Revolution changed forever the relationship between humanity and nature. There is real concern that by the middle or the end of the twenth-first century human activities will have changed the basic con­ditions that have allowed life to thrive on Earth.

The 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its 1997 Kyoto Protocol are part of a series of recent agreements through which countries around the world are banding together to meet this challenge. Other treaties adopted under UN auspices deal with such matters as pollution of the oceans, dryland degradation, damage to the ozone layer, and the rapid extinction of plant and animal species. The Convention on Climate Change focuses on something particularly disturbing: we are changing the way energy from the sun interacts with and escapes from our planet's atmosphere. By doing that, we risk altering the global climate. Among the expected consequences are an increase in the average temperature of Earth's surface and shifts in worldwide weather patterns. Other – unforeseen – effects cannot be ruled out.

What exactly is climate change?

Shifts in climate have shaped human destiny since the beginning of time, and people have responded largely by adapting, migrating and growing smarter. Previously the global cli­mate changed human beings. Now human beings seem to be changing the global climate. The results are uncertain, but if current predictions prove correct, the climatic changes over the coming century will be larger than any since the dawn of human civilization.

The principal change to date is in Earth's atmosphere. We have changed, and are con­tinuing to change, the balance of gases that form the atmosphere. This is especially true of such key "greenhouse gases" as carbon dioxide (C02), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O). Humans are changing this balance when we burn coal, oil and natural gas, spewing huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the air. When we destroy forests, the carbon stored in the trees escapes to the atmosphere. Other basic activities, such as raising cattle and planting rice, emit methane, nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gases. If emissions con­tinue to grow at current rates, it is almost certain that atmospheric levels of carbon diox­ide will double from pre-industrial levels during the twenty-first century. If no steps are taken to slow greenhouse gas emissions, it is quite possible that levels will triple by the year 2100.

The most direct result, says the scientific consensus of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is likely to be a "global warming" of 1° to 3.5° C over the next 100 years. That is in addition to an apparent temperature increase of around half a degree Centigrade since the pre-industrial period before 1850, at least some of which may be due to past greenhouse gas emissions.

Just how this would affect us is hard to predict because the global climate is a very complicated system. For example, wind and rainfall patterns that have prevailed for hun­dreds or thousands of years, and on which millions of people depend, may change. Sea levels may rise and threaten islands and low-lying coastal areas. In a world that is increas­ingly crowded and under stress – a world that has enough problems already – these extra pressures could lead directly to more famines and other catastrophes.

What has been the international response?

"In many cases, we already know what needs to be done," said Secretary-General Kofi Annan this year in June in an address to the 2000 graduating class of Stanford University. "The Kyoto Protocol on climate change can begin to control carbon emissions – if it is rati­fied and implemented, not least by the United States, the world's largest producer of green­house gases. This would be an enormous gift to the entire planet," he told the students.

Long before the Kyoto Protocol was signed, climate change was recognized as a seri­ous problem. The First World Climate Conference held in 1979 explored how climate change might affect human activity. Subsequent international scientific and intergovernmental conferences on the subject were held under UN auspices throughout the next decade.

· In 1990 the IPCC released its First Assessment Report. Established in 1988 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World eteorological Organization (WMO), the Panel was given a mandate to assess the state of existing knowledge about the climate system and climate change; the environmental, economic and social impacts of climate change; and the possible response strategies. Approved after a painstaking peer review process, the report confirmed the scientific evidence for climate change. This had a powerful effect on both policy makers and the general public and provided the basis for negotiations on the Convention on Climate Change, which began in early 1991.

  • Facing a strict deadline – the June 1992 "Earth Summit" – negotiators from 150 coun­tries finalized the Convention in just 15 months. It was adopted in New York on 9 May 1992 and signed by 154 States (plus the European Community) at Rio de Janeiro. The Convention entered into force on 21 March 1994 and, as of May 2000, has 184 parties.

The Convention on Climate Change is a manifestation of the political will of the nations of the world to agree that there is a problem and that a common course of action.




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