Under threat Editorial
Stabroek News
July 24, 2002

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In a statement remarkable for its focus and forthrightness, Minister of Agriculture, Navin Chandarpal asserted last week (SN July 11) that climate change had already demonstrated the impact it could have on the economic well-being of Guyana. He said that sea level rise was only one of the impacts of climate change and the effects on drainage and irrigation were also critical. He acknowledged the need to get the sectoral agencies integrated. As the climate change issue too often remains at the level of abstraction, it was of particular importance that the Minister revealed “that two days of intensive rainfall in the middle of the rice crop last year destroyed l0% of production and just afterwards there was an extended dry season which caused irrigation problems.”

Now that there has been such clear recognition at high policy level of Guyana’s vulnerability to the adverse effects of global warming, Government must move quickly to the next step namely the establishment of a policy planning unit to cope with it. The task cannot be assigned to existing bodies as they already have their own urgent priorities and because the implications for Guyana’s future are wide ranging and will reach far into the future.

It would not be unfair to say that this Government is not strong on the strategic vision or on planning. The proposed Ministry for Planning and Economic Development has not been established and the National Development Strategy, a decade in the making, twice laid in Parliament but still to be debated, has not yet been adopted for implementation.

Early planning to cope with the effects of global warming including sea level rise would enable the identification of projects for which international assistance (technology and funds) could be sought from an international community increasingly divided by national interests and confused in its approach to the threats of global warming.

So what is the problem, what are the threats?

The earth’s atmosphere, as it exists after millions of years of internal turbulence and cooling finally reached the stage which has enabled life to emerge and to be maintained. But it is a matter of delicate balance between a number of gases and solar radiation. Human activity since the industrial revolution has been changing the chemical balance of the atmosphere mainly through the burning of fossil fuels (oil and coal). The burning of such fuels release so called green house gases which blanket the earth preventing solar heat from radiating back into space and thus increasing the temperature close to the earth’s surface. Some of the hottest years since records began have occurred since l983 and it was hotter still in the l990’s.

In consequence the vast ice formations in the Arctic and Antarctic are already melting and releasing vast volumes of water, leading to sea level rise with consequent devastating effects on island states in the Pacific and the Caribbean, low lying areas like Bangladesh or the Nile and Mekong deltas and Guyana. As President Clinton has pointed out the adverse effects will be felt even in Manhattan.

On Friday last week it was reported that the glaciers of Alaska are now melting at an accelerated rate and the world’s seas might rise even faster than first predicted.

Global warming is also already precipitating erratic weather conditions world wide and the intensity and extension of the hurricane season. Hurricane “Mitch” which devastated Central America is a foretaste of what might be expected. Dramatic changes in weather patterns will have knock-on effects on food production and agriculture generally.

Already there exists a significant volume of research on the effects of global warming in Guyana, beginning with the Commonwealth Secretariat’s study on climate change which included work done by the gifted and internationally recognized Guyanese engineer R.F. (Bobby) Camacho. Grave threats were identified to the sugar and rice industries and generally to the structures including sea defences and irrigation which make living and development possible on the coast.

What can be done, especially at the global level? The recommended consensus programme is to get the major users of fossil fuels to cut down on the emissions of the harmful gases. It is clear that this will not be easy as it would involve fundamental changes in life styles especially in the wealthy industrialised countries. Most transport (cars, buses, lorries, trains and planes) move on some form of fossil fuel. Diminished use of such transport or transport using alternative forms of energy will disrupt ways of living. Then there are the concerns of the powerful corporations especially in the energy sector of the industrialised economies.

The consumer especially in the North will see it as a situation in which they are being asked to make changes and sacrifices to cope with a threat not yet directly impacting upon them, while the sacrifices which they make may only yield results decades into the future. Coping with this difficult political situation will require courageous leadership, as has been displayed in California where legislation to curb car emission will come into force this week.

The corporations for their part see the necessary measures as cutting unnecessarily into their profits and prospects for further growth.

It was against this background that the much discussed Kyoto Conference was held in December l997. Only the European Union came with a firm commitment to reduce harmful gas emissions through binding targets. The USA from the perspective of the comparatively liberal Clinton administration was only prepared to accept stabilisation, that is agreement not to increase current levels. The Japanese hosts as a highly developed industrial power shilly-shallied. While the developing countries were confused pointing out that if they were to undertake appropriate measures they would expect assistance with new acceptable energy technology and funding, different groups insisted on special treatment or exemption from targets. The Arab states for example sided with the industrialised states in view of their heavy dependence on the oil markets.

The result, the Kyoto Protocol, was a patchwork but was considered to be at least a start towards coping with a grave threat to humanity. Sadly, the road since Kyoto has been steadily downhill.

President George W. Bush, responding to pressures from his powerful oil industry supporters, decided to withdraw from the treaty and further negotiations on it.

With about 4% of the world’s population the USA contributes about 25% of global green house gas emissions. As the US action was clearly intended to torpedo the Kyoto treaty the European Union in keeping with its commitment at Kyoto mounted a rescue conference at Bonn last year. With the US out of the picture, political agreement was reached quickly on nearly all issues including the establishment of funds (alas voluntary) which are of particular interest to developing countries including Guyana. But Bonn was at best a pyrrhic triumph.

The Bonn agreements are now likewise being unraveled. Australia’s Prime Minister celebrated World Environment Day (June 5) by announcing that Australia had decided not to ratify the Kyoto (Bonn) Agreement on the grounds that it would cost jobs and harm its industry. Similar noises are emerging in Canada.

The prospects for global action to at least halt, if not turn back, global warming are not good- especially in view of the mounting uncertainties in several industrial economies including the USA.

Yet the reality of the vast devastation which global warming threatens is steadily being driven home. Four years ago the flooding of the Yangtse river displaced fifty-six million people. Another twenty-six million were made homeless in Bangladesh. Nearer home, hurricane “Mitch” killed eighteen thousand people in Central America.

Minister Chandarpal has called for more aggressive action but there is little that Guyana can do on its own to influence global action. Even the Group of 77 in which Guyana had played a foremost role as chairman failed at its first summit in Havana in 2000 to give adequate attention to environmental issues including global warming, going no further than to advocate “a solution for the serious global regional and local environmental problems facing humanity, based on the recognition of the North’s ecological debt and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities of developed and developing countries.”

Guyana might find it more fruitful to concentrate its diplomatic efforts within the Commonwealth which includes both industrialised countries and the small states (both island and low lying) which are likely to be most affected.

However it is in our power to be prepared and to plan. We may for example try to make agriculture less dependent on rainfall patterns and more on irrigation.

Planning should also try to cope with accelerating erosion of the sea defences. It would also be relevant to explore the feasibility of crop insurance.

Dealing with the impact of sea level rise on Guyana, the Commonwealth study underlined two key points as follows: “The first is that anticipatory planning and a staged programme of works accompanied by continued monitoring and feasibility analysis are much preferable both to doing nothing and suffering the costs of flooding - or to belated once and for all, construction projects. Second, it is possible using local experience and expertise in constructing sea defence and drainage systems to improvise relatively inexpensive but effective protection...”

Just now, in the international press, scientists are discussing whether a recently unearthed six million year old skull marks the first emergence of man (homo sapiens) from his apelike ancestry. The discussion should focus attention on the vast aeons of time through which man ascended towards civilisation. Human flowering is now in jeopardy through the human action that precipitates global warming.