Climate change – a primer for activists.

john Treat* oulines global warming and its sources, and urges popular mobilisation to ensure that governments make binding agreements to significantly stop carbon emissions in the interests of climate justice, at the COP 17 meeting Durban later this year.

There is currently a lot of controversy surrounding climate change. There are powerful industries and individuals who stand to benefit from confusion or doubt about climate change, as their livelihoods depend on the industrial processes that are responsible for doing the harm. The scientific consensus on the subject is overwhelmingly unified: global warming and climate change is real and is caused by human activity – especially large-scale industrial, construction, transportation and military activity. We are already beginning to see changes in climate and weather that will only get worse if it not addressed.

What is global warming?

Global warming is an increase in the average global temperature of the earth. Climate change, which is related to global warming, refers to changes in the frequency and distribution of different kinds of weather around the world. At a specific location, this means changes in amongst others, the local temperature the rainfall, humidity and storm frequency. Global warming does not mean that every place will become warmer; rather, it means that on average the planet is getting warmer. The average increase in temperature will create various kinds of changes at local levels.

Why is the earth warming?

One of the things that determine the temperature on earth is the level of carbon dioxide (CO) gas in the atmosphere. This gas traps some of the energy that reaches the earth from the sun, acting as a kind of blanket around the earth. Throughout most of human history, the additional warmth provided by this CO blanket has been a major factor in determining where human beings live, how they meet their day -to-day needs for food,water, shelter and energy, and how their societies function. Over the course of the earth’s history, level of CO in there atmosphere and the average global temperature have periodically shifted up or down. For the most part, those changes took place gradually, over many thousands of years, allowing the plans and animals affected by them to adapt to changing conditions or migrate to new locations. The disruptions to their lives were generally relatively mind, and often did not have a major impact on their survival or that of their offspring.

Over the past few hundred years, atmospheric CO levels have been increasing but a faster rate as compared to periods in the past. This increase is mainly the result of additional CO that has been introduced by human activity such as the extraction and burning of coal, oil and gas to support various industrial processes, including manufacturing, electricity generation, construction, and military campaigns. Throughout the increase in carbon quantities seem small, they can cause significant changes in the earth’s average temperature, and as a result can cause major changes in local weather patterns, local ecosystems and food production processes.

The other gas adding to the problem is called methane. It also traps some of the heat from the sun but because it is a more affective ‘blanket’ additional amounts to methane will trap much greater qualities of heat close to the earth. Currently, there are large quantities of methane trapped in the ground in the far northern hemisphere under huge areas of frozen land called permafrost. Since the earth is already warming, one very serious danger is that rising global temperatures thaw the permafrost, releasing large quantities of the methane trapped there. There additional methane will speed up warming. The consequences of the release of methane would almost certainly be devastating for human life, as we know it

Mobilise for COP 17

At the moment, carbon emissions are still increasing, and will continue to do so until radical steps are taken globally to stop the increases and reverse them to reach a safe level. This will require a major, coordinated commitment by world governments, and a change in the ways in which we produce electricity and many other things.

The next opportunity for world leaders to reach such an agreement is later this year, from November 28- December 9, in Durban. South Africa will host the next United Nations annual conference on climate change, the seventeenth “ Conference of the parties” or COP17.

The COP17 may be the last chance of world leaders to reach a fair, ambitious, and binding international agreement on urgently reducing CO emissions and reversing the damage that has already been done. Many are skeptical about such an agreement being reached. With South Africa’s distinguished history and dynamic tradition of activism, the COP17 presents a truly unique opportunity to show world leaders the power of the people when the people demand solutions – and justice.

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