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World Environment Day 2013: A Time for Hope

05/31/2013 04:43 pm ET | Updated Jul 31, 2013
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More than 1 million people will call for the protection of our planet next week as they gather across the globe to celebrate World Environment Day.

Their mission: to raise support for a more sustainable future as the devastating effects of climate change continue to affect us all.

The UN-sponsored day comes eight months after super storm Sandy swept across the northeastern seaboard to leave much of New York City submerged under water.

Two months later, typhoon Bopha struck the southern part of the Philippines, killing more than 1,000 people.

Caused by warmer weather over the world's oceans, such storms are a brutal reminder of what the future may hold if global warming continues to run riot.

They came during the hottest year on record, following a summer of intense heat waves. And, although such weather is frightening, it is the product of a mere 0.8 degrees Celsius temperature rise.

According to the World Bank, however, things are about to get hotter -- much hotter. At the end of last year, it warned that global temperatures may rise by as much as 4 degrees Celsius within the next 50 years. This will usher in changes not seen since the last Ice Age.

And, last month the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere shot past the 400 parts per million mark for the first time in 4.5 million years.

The last time that this happened, sea levels rose by around 40 meters, savannah grasslands spread across the Sahara desert, and thick alpine forest grew all the way up to the northern edge of the Arctic Ocean.

And, unless we radically rein in our global carbon emissions, that figure is expected to double and breach the 800 mark by the end of this century.

"We are creating a prehistoric climate in which human societies will face huge and potentially catastrophic risks. Only by urgently reducing global emissions will we be able to avoid the full consequences of turning back the climate clock by 3 million years," says Bob Ward from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change.

In other words, we are "conducting a huge, uncontrolled and almost certainly irreversible climate experiment with the only home" we are likely to ever have, writes Martin Wolf in the Financial Times.

And, although there is a growing belief that technology will somehow save us, one of the UN's lead climate scientists, professor Peter Cox, likens adaptation to wearing a safety helmet whilst running down a corridor at full speed in the dark. And, unbeknown to the runner, there are a string of invisible staircases that plunge downwards.

So, we really need to ask ourselves: Is this the environmental legacy that we want to be remembered for? According to James Hansen, NASA's former climate scientist, it's our moral duty to hand over a safe planet to our children: "Our parents didn't know that they were causing a problem for future generations, but we can only pretend that we don't know because the science is now crystal clear."

Hansen regards human-induced climate change to be a grave "moral issue" on par with slavery.

And, as the U.S. and China are the world's largest polluters, any hope of saving our planet depends on the commitment of these two powerhouses. And, the good news is: Beijing has already taking the lead.

Last month, it announced plans to introduce a carbon cap as early as 2016. And, although such plans are not yet finalized, the move is widely regarded to be the opening salvo for a global green deal in a few years time.

In the words of Lord Nicholas Stern, author of a landmark paper on the economics of climate change: "This is very exciting news. Such an important move should encourage all countries, and particularly the United States, to take stronger action on climate change. And it improves the prospects for a strong international treaty in 2015."

The move comes a few months after China ushered in its new generation of leaders fronted by Xi Jinping.

The new government has come under increasing fire to tackle pollution after the capitol became cloaked in a thick apocalyptic smog earlier this year, which led to a 30 percent rise in hospital admissions for breathing problems.

In the past, the world's most populous nation was reluctant to curb emissions as it wanted to lift its people out of poverty. The environment was therefore sacrificed in order to achieve breakneck economic growth.

But, now pollution has become the main cause of social unrest, forcing the government to come up with new ways to expand the economy through services and clean technology.

In fact, China has already overtaken the U.S. to become the leader in the green energy race. It is also in the midst of developing its first national climate change bill.

And, after several years of preparation, it's launching several pilot carbon exchanges across the country this year.

In the words of billionaire investor Jeremy Grantham:

"I have very high hopes for China because they have embedded high scientific capabilities in their leadership class. They can calculate the social threat of getting this weather instability out of control. They will eventually have such low-cost energy, they will be the terror of the capitalist system."

As the U.S. is one of the world's biggest carbon polluters, it also needs to step up to the plate. In 2011, Barack Obama took the largest step of any American president to date when he raised fuel efficiency standards for cars.

But now, as the fate of our planet hangs in the balance, he needs to deliver on the big changes that he promised during his stirring State of the Union address earlier this year.

Many regard Obama's presidency to be the last chance America has to lay down policy that could help save our climate.

Such changes will help the U.S. and the whole world to move forward toward a low carbon future which our children's children will be able to enjoy. In his own words: "If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will."

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