Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Reflections on Climate Change, Consensus, and Icebergs

As a first-time attendee of an Antarctic Treaty Meeting, I was often simultaneously exasperated and enlightened. Exasperated because of the frequent long discussions on what seemed to be minor points, enlightened because now I better understand why international bodies have reputations for being do-nothings. After one long, borderline hostile debate, an interesting idea proposed by one Treaty party had been stripped, at least from our organization's point of view, of all meaning - to the point where other consultative parties more or less openly mocked the outcome. It was only later that I got a vague idea about why the idea had been so problematic to some Treaty parties, and even then the reasons seemed far less critical than the strenuousness of their objections led me to believe.

The idea at hand (I can't say too much about the exact details since the debates are not necessarily on the record) was not even suggested as a Resolution, which is binding. This was merely the first step in a fairly tentative consideration of an emerging, but ultimately minor, issue. Before it had even been studied, some Parties were worried about an outcome unfavorable to them. Now imagine the foot-dragging that must occur in similar fora that address issues with extremely broad ramifications, such as climate change. After seeing the painful process of developing an international consensus (and among less than thirty countries!) up close, I understand, if not approve of, the lack of action at the UN and similar bodies. When the climate change conference in Copenhagen rolls around this December, try not to only be angry at countries that hold up progress. Show support for the countries who are striving for progress. Believe me, they are just as frustrated as you are. Probably more.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that Copenhagen is probably going to be a fairly difficult process, even though the impact of climate change grows by the day. The European Space Agency (ESA) has been releasing excellent images of the continuing breakup of the Wilkins Ice Shelf in Antarctica. Earlier this month, the land bridge connecting the shelf to an island collapsed, and now the ice shelf has become more destabilized, with icebergs beginning to calve. The danger with the continued breakup of the ice shelf is not that the icebergs will have any appreciable impact on sea level, but that ice shelves typically hold back glaciers and land ice. In the absence of the shelf, these other kinds of ice slide towards the ocean faster, and they can raise sea level. Many in the environmental community reacted to news about the Wilkins Ice Shelf with a hope that the unfortunate event would at least spur governments to take more decisive action. We'll see in December whether it will be business as usual or if goverments can put aside some of their differences and work a bit more cooperatively.

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