As the next round of U.N. climate talks opens in Cancun, Mexico, British climate scientists are warning that up to one billion people could be displaced by rising sea levels this century. The Guardian reports that if global temperatures cannot be halted from rising by 4 degrees Celsius, up to three billion will lose access to clean water supplies. Changes to sea level, crop yields, rainfall, and weather systems will cause massive displacement and could lead to “ghost states” of governments in exile and countries in diaspora.
Despite the dire scenarios, there is little optimism for real progress at the Conference of the Partners meeting (COP16), especially considering the disastrous Copenhagen talks of a year ago. The north/south divide is key to the lack of forward movement. Activist Bill McKibben summed up the problem neatly: “a rich north that won’t give up its fossil-fuel addiction, a poor south that can’t give up its hope of fossil-fueled development.” The Guardian reports that leaders from the “south” are prepared to be vocal, if not strident, in their defense of less developed nations’ rights, particularly those nations that may not exist if sea levels rise as many expect.
President Obama is not scheduled to attend the talks this year. Several activists, including McKibben, are suggesting it may be better if the US just gets out of the way rather than using its power to argue for weaker targets that will not make the goals.
Writing last week, McKibben wonders what it will take to spur leaders to work together. Given the events of the summer of 2010, “19 countries setting new heat records, Russia on fire, Pakistan underwater” it’s hard to imagine what needs to occur before countries can unite and act for the long-term good of all.
Climate Refugees artwork; Photo by chientai of tatu; Creative Commons license