A message from Christiana Figueres

February 16, 2012 | 2:33 pm |

This is a guest post by Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Recently, I left the comfort of my office at the UN Climate Change Secretariat in Bonn, Germany, to join Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project expedition to Antarctica. As the head of the UN agency which supports the global climate change negotiations, I mostly get to see meeting rooms and people in smart suits. This mission would take me to one of the roughest corners of the planet, so you can imagine my excitement and trepidation.

I packed extra layers, the warmest, fluffiest clothes in my closet, and availed myself of polar boots. But when you go to the extremes of the world, there really is nothing that prepares you for what you’re about to experience. After several days of travel on board the National Geographic Explorer, we sailed into Antarctic water and I approached one of thousands of enormous icebergs in a small zodiac craft. I was captivated by the haunting beauty of the ice, sculptured to perfection by the forces of nature. But the massive size of the icebergs with their graceful, translucent, aquamarine-blue pillars belie their vulnerability and that of the entire Antarctic ice cover.

Antarctica is not only the highest, coldest, driest and windiest continent on the planet. It is also a global bellwether of climate change, and a big influencer of the world’s climate. As we passed this iceberg, I was reminded that rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the world’s atmosphere have already led to a temperature rise of almost three degrees Celsius over the past 50 years in this part of the world. This is why the land ice is diminishing so fast, and huge chunks of ice are slipping into the sea. We have started what scientist Henry Pollack calls a “huge inadvertent experiment with the Earth’s climate.”

Animals are of course affected by this, too. I saw colonies of penguins that appeared to be thriving in the warmer climate. But I also saw other penguin species, whales and seals that are losing the possibility to feed sufficiently in what used to be nutrient-rich waters. The dwindling ice cover in some areas means less krill, and less krill means a serious weakening of the bottom of the food web in Antarctica, affecting all animals up the food chain.

The effects of warming global temperatures are not only local, and not only on animals and plants. On board the ship chartered by The Climate Reality Project were a number of people from the worlds of science, business and policy. Among the people I talked to was Hassan Mahmud, Minister of the Environment of Bangladesh. Although halfway around the world from Antarctica, his low-lying country is directly affected by the loss of ice in the Antarctic. As ice melts, sea levels rise
puts 18 million of his people at risk. The fate of people in his region goes close to my heart. I went to visit Pakistan after the flood to examine the extent of the damage, back in 2010. How quickly it has already been replaced in news photos by successive major weather disasters.

Minister Mahmud and the representatives of 193 other countries attended the UN Climate Change Conference in Durban at the end of last year. The countries meeting there agreed on a common vision that will shape the way climate change is dealt with internationally over the years to come. They agreed to keep the existing legal system under which industrialized countries promise to reduce emissions, the Kyoto Protocol. And they agreed on a pathway towards a new global system, covering the emissions of all countries. This global system is to be adopted by 2015 and to enter into force by 2020. The open question is: Will governments, supported by business and civil society, move quickly enough to protect the most vulnerable from the worst effects of climate change? And in the meantime, will our efforts to make them more climate-resilient reach those who need the support most? Can we anticipate adaptation, rather than just react?

© 2009 Flickr/UNclimatechange CC BY-NC 2.0

At the UN Climate Conference in Durban, governments reached groundbreaking agreements. But were they enough to ensure that Antarctic ice will stop melting and that the people of Bangladesh are now safe? No — the fact is that no single agreement or set of agreements can provide a definitive answer to the challenge of climate change. Whilst the world does now have a clear vision and a pathway forward, the sheer magnitude of what we are dealing with means that all of civil society and every single government must do their utmost to stave off the worst effects of climate change. Businesses can play a central role, and the public sector can team up with companies to get action going on the ground. Notably in developing countries, there are many good examples of what is possible.

Heading back from Antarctica, it struck me how the world is rapidly transforming. The ice of Antarctica is in constant – and accelerating – movement. Action to combat climate change also needs to urgently increase in scale, scope and speed. I left the Climate Reality Project boat haunted by the moral challenge that was put before us: “Before you make a decision that affects the world’s climate, imagine the eyes of seven generations of children in the future looking at you, and asking … Why?”