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The World's Most Dangerous Epidemic

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The world is facing an escalating global epidemic. Today, it claims 350,000 deaths per year and in 2030 the annual death toll will be approaching one million -- the majority of them will be children. In addition, the epidemic will lead to dramatic changes in the living conditions for whole continents and several hundred millions -- or possibly billions -- of people will be affected. 15 countries are already acutely affected by the epidemic, while 50 additional countries are at high risk. In two decades, the risk will cover 130 countries.

The worst afflicted areas are the poorest countries, simply because they have the fewest resources to curb with the epidemic. Over the next 20 years Africa is at risk of becoming economically and socially crippled, just as the Middle East and Asia are expected to be negatively affected. The epidemic "infects" not only the people but also the national economies. It will affect the economy in both the industrialized and developing countries, leading to dramatic costs and economic loss. The extent is difficult to calculate. But it is estimated that the epidemic in the years to come will trigger a loss of around $150 billion annually, increasing up to $300 billion over the next 20 years.

The epidemic is out of control, and countermeasures are few and inefficient -- we are running out of ideas, ways and methods for preventing the epidemic from spreading. It can therefore evolve much faster than the first estimates suggest. And in the longer term -- toward the latter part of this century -- it may threaten the entire civilization. There are no methods and models that can calculate both speed and anticipated consequences. But one thing seems certain: The world is confronted with the greatest challenge ever experienced. A challenge that we are certainly not prepared to handle.

This could be perceived as a possible worst-case scenario for the development of the world. But it is unfortunately the current facts. The "epidemic" is the impact of the accelerating and far-reaching climate change.

A gloomy outlook

Predictions and research on the climate changes show a still darker picture of our common future. We are moving towards a possibly devastating disaster with severe temperature increases, massive rises in sea level and increased frequency of natural disasters -- even at an accelerating pace.

Today we are already seeing severe and far-reaching results of the "epidemic." In 2010 we experienced extraordinary climate in almost every part of the world; great Asian summer monsoons; extreme heat waves in Russia; abnormal winter in many northern part of the world; record high temperatures in the Polar Regions; heavy rains and flooding in Europe, Asia, and Australia. Consequently, one thing seems sure: The epidemic is a fact. We cannot avoid comprehensive climate change, and it will affect all life on earth and cause dramatic consequences -- both humanly, socially and economically. But no one knows how quickly the disaster will occur or how extensive it will be. It can occur in a few decades or centuries.

The dark outlook is compounded by the world community's inability and unwillingness to respond. Climate change was on top of the agenda a few years back. But after the last couple of years of fruitless policy discussions on a global intervention, the media, the public and the politicians apparently lost interest. Thus, we are at present lacking a global awareness of the seriuosness of the looming climate change and the importance of an international plan for tackling the epidemic. Instead, we encounter the climate change problems unprepared and ununited.

Had the climate epidemic been a "real" epidemic, the WHO would long ago have enabled its Global Alert and Response System and the shock reactions would have generated a series of crisis meetings among the world's political leaders. The world press would day after day have been dominated by news reports, analysis and data on the new "black death". The public would have been informed of and engaged in the necessary countermeasures in preventing the epidemic from spreading. An example: less than a year ago the swine flu was the object of a massive attention, politicians, media and the public were on a heightened state of alert. All of this, despite the fact that the swine flu resulted in far fewer deaths than a normal flu season.

This makes the lack of interest and focus even more incomprehensible when it comes to what legitimately can be characterized as "the world's most dangerous epidemic" -- the climate changes.


The greatest challenge

Solving the climate crisis is the greatest challenge of our time. This is due to a combination of several mutually reinforcing forces:

  • It is new and rapidly accelerating. Although the problem has been known for several years, it is especially within the last year that we have been seeing the horrifying consequences of the "epidemic." The spread of the epidemic is speeding up and even though it is still uncertain how widespread it will become, the recently experienced effects underlines, that the climate epidemic has great potential of turning into the world's largest disaster which dramatically will alter the conditions of life for billions of people worldwide.
  • We lack knowledge. The risks posed by climate change are large, and so is our ignorance about them. Scientists are baffled by many of the underlying forces that determine the rate and extent of the epidemic. They lack the models that will enable them to calculate and predict the consequences with reasonable accuracy. E.g. scientists continuously adjust expectations for global sea rise, unfortunately upward each time. This is further underlined, by the science's tendency to stick to safe estimates of risk and thus continually lag behind reality. Consequently, this results in delayed and weak responses.
  • There are no effective countermeasures. The global CO2 emissions continue to increase rapidly and the international society has yet to find a common ground on how to face -- and hopefully solve this challenge. Attempts to adapt to a global binding agreement failed at the COP15 meeting in Copenhagen and again at the COP16 meeting in Cancun.
  • The consequences are incalculable. There is an uncertainty about the coming decades, but there is a great certainty among scientist that the climate changes will trigger dramatic consequences - human, social and economic. The report "Climate Vulnerability Monitor 2010" published in December 2010, by DARA and The Climate Vulnerability Forum, concludes that the "climate-epidemic" will effect and challenge a number of the leading institutions in the world -- with a power that only nature can mobilize. For example, how will the global society act on a possible increase of seawater with one or two meters in this decade? Or on the fact that 30 percent of China is expected to be turned into desert? Or the fact that the climate changes are expected to leave a billion people in shortage of water within this decade?
  • It polarizes the world. History shows that it is predominately the developing countries that are affected. Almost all of the expected climate deaths within the next year will take place in the poor countries. This will inevitably trigger demands for comprehensive support actions from the rich countries that, because of massive debt burdens do not have the necessary funds. The result can be new tensions, intensified conflicts and possibly a large flow of new climate refugees.
  • The world community is not interested in it. An apparent unwillingness to address the problem undoubtedly holds the biggest single risk. The failed COP negotiations in Copenhagen and Cancun illustrate the political impotence -- as symbols of the lacking drive and concern from the world community in regards to solving the climate problems. Same lack of interest is detected in the media and public debate. Rarely has such a large and important agenda been so hastily removed from the media spotlight.

The climate catastrophe approaches

We are entering a state of crises, without the necessary means or methods to overcome the looming climate changes. The climate crisis is already a reality. This is underlined by the resent development in the global temperatures -- 2010 was in the top three warmest years and 2001-2010 is the warmest period ever measured since the beginning of instrumental climate records in 1850. (See figure 1.)

Climate scientists from all over the world agree that we have passed the possibility of limiting a global temperature increase to 2 degrees -- the goal that was agreed upon by the world's leaders in the Copenhagen Accord from COP15. 'The World Energy Outlook' from the International Energy Agency (IEA) released last year, projected a CO2 concentration of 650 ppm by the year 2100 - equivalent to a temperature rise of more than 3.5 degrees. This will trigger unpredictable climatic disasters in many parts of the world. These conclusions led Nobuo Tanaka, director of the IEA to make a rare, but direct appeal to the politicians: "We must act now to ensure that climate promises are interpreted as sharply as possible and that much stronger commitments are adopted and implemented after 2020 If not before. Otherwise, the 2-degree target out of reach forever."

But the question still at hand is whether the future efforts will be sufficient or if we can even hope to "save" the planet from a massive disaster. Today many of the leading climate scientists argue that we have passed a point of no return in regards to the climate changes. This meaning, that even though we reduce our carbon dioxide emissions markedly the coming years, the earth will still reach a significant turning point within this decade. For instance, in the beginning of January 2011 a new study on the impacts of the climate changes, from the Los Alamos laboratory in the US, concluded that Greenland ice sheet will reach a 'point of no return' in 2040 -- regardless the efforts and changes the world community might initiate. Subsequently, the melting of the island's vast quantities of ice will continue and in principle not stop until most of the ice is gone. A total meltdown of Greenland's ice will lead to sea level rise of six to seven meters in the world's oceans. The analysis of Greenland icecap is not a unique case - the forecast can be applied to all of the icecaps and glaziers throughout the world (see textbox).

Following this line of reports, we have passed the tipping point, where we could hope for and dream about eliminating the climate problems. Now it's about limiting the impact.

A new approach

It is unacceptable and disheartening that we do not put massive efforts into getting more certainty about the dramatic prospects for the future of the world. No one today can say with certainty whether and when the possible doomsday scenarios become reality -- or to what extent. But we owe it to the next generations to find out.

A new study from Stanford University found that 97 percent of the scientists with prominence and credentials in climate research are convinced of the anthropogenic climate change. We are inflicting the epidemic on ourselves. Yet the respond and countermeasures are absent; the emissions of CO2 -- the main contributor to global warming -- show no sign of abating and is expected to have increased with more than 3 percent, a new record level, in 2010. Furthermore the energy demand and the demand for fossil fuels are expected to grow significantly by 2035. (See figures 2 and 3.) This forecast underlines, the fact that we are still reluctant to act on the facts.

The message is as simple as it is dramatic: we have run out of time and the next few years is our absolute last chance to exert some influence on what kind of world we will leave to future generations. But there is not much hope ahead. The actors appointed to solve the climate changes do not seem to be able to act on the growing threat. This conclusion was formulated by José María Figueres, the former President of Costa Rica and one of front figures in the global climate movement: "The UN system does not seem capable of solving the climate challenge. And the situation is too serious for us to leave it to politicians alone. The business and the public in general play a very important role in ensuring the ambitious and necessary climate actions."

Looking at the last couple of years, it is evident, that the scientist track has not been capable of evoking enough action, the political track has met a dead-end and the business track is not working fast enough -- even though leading business around the world is expanding the green growth market by the minute. Instead, we are normalizing the problem, looking at global warming as a new trend, we must learn to live with and adapt to.

Even though it is now impossible to prevent all climate changes, we need a global strategy on how to adapt to the climate changes and avoid the devastating climate catastrophe - we still must try to control the epidemic. Consequently, there is urgent need for a strong green lobbyism that can exert strong pressure on the world's politicians to take responsibility for solving the accelerating climate problems. Thus we need to create a new global initiative that turns the attention on the fourth and most powerful authority - the public. A committed global public that are active in the climate change debate are the final and most effective vehicle in ensuring the ambitious activities necessary in preventing and resolving the climate changes. This is the last chance for the world community - and especially next generation - to have a bit of an influence on their own future.

This is the background and perspectives of "Planet Call" -- an ambitious and indispensable global awareness campaign. "Planet Call" is not only a deeply fascinating story that has the potential to bridge the gap between past and present. "Planet Call" is also an important wake up call for the world society - a way of creating a new and very much needed awareness around the serious epidemic affecting our planet. The goal is simple: "Planet Call" is an invitation to the public -- and especially to the younger generation -- to get involved, get mobilized and inspire to new action. Hereby paving the way for a new global agenda that can be the catalyst of the needed turn-around of the critical outlook of the earth. The time for a unified public to act is now. Because later is too late.

Figure 1. Temperature Anomalies Jan-Nov 2010
(with respect to a 1971-2000 base period)

2011-02-01-figure1.jpg

Source: National Climate Data Center

Figure 2. Boom in energy demand

2011-02-01-figure2.jpg

Source: World Energy Outlook 2010, IEA

Figure 3. Boom in the demand for fossil fuels

2011-02-01-figure3.jpg

Source: World Energy Outlook 2010, IEA

The melting of the icecaps

The melting of ice is one of the most serious effects of the climate changes. Throughout the period 1978-2010, the volume of sea ice has been strongly decreasing. See Figure below. Both the winter 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 are new records in regards to low ice conditions throughout the globe. New observations from NASA's satellite monitoring of the Greenland and the West Antarctic ice sheet show that their mass loss has increased substantially over the past 15 years.

From 1993 to 2007 there has been a global sea rise of 3-4 mm per year. It is far more than the average for the 20th century, and ice sheets mass loss is the dominant cause. The massive melting is a relatively new phenomenon. 10-15 years ago, the Greenland ice sheet was in balance. This means that the ice sheet absorbed as much water as it lost. After 1995, the picture changed. The annual mass loss increased by 200 gigatons in a decade. In 1995, 300 gigatons of ice came into the oceans from the ice cap. In 2005 it had risen to 400 gigatons. In the same period of melting has increased from 250 gigatons to 350 gigatons. The increasing mass loss of 200 gigatons corresponds to a global sea rise of 0.5 millimeters a year.

Based on current projections of temperature increases, climate and ice researchers expect a severe rise in sea water over the coming years. See figure.

2011-02-01-figure4.jpg

A look back into the planet's history demonstrates that the consequences can be severe. 127,000 years ago, the last time the earth experiences a warming of the polar regions of 5 degrees over a longer period, the seawater was 5-8 meters higher on a global level. It is a snapshot of what might happen if global warming increases with more than 2 degrees. Increases in global average temperature 3-4 degrees - as predicted by many experts - will trigger an automatic increase in the polar regions of 8-9 degrees. This will have huge impact. Some scenarios suggest seawater increases of over twenty meters. Although the timeframe for the total meltdown in most research reports is estimated to be several hundred years, new studies suggest, that we will reach a tipping point within a much shorter time frame.

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