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Analysis: Hollywood at the service of science

By ERIC J. LYMAN, United Press International   |   July 1, 2004 at 5:20 PM   |   Comments

BONN, Germany, July 1 (UPI) -- The blockbuster film "The Day After Tomorrow" has done something that environmental advocates have been trying to do for years: introduce the debate on what to do about the world's changing climate into the average person's dinner table conversation.

Most expert observers to the climate change debate admit to seeing the film, though they wink at its less-than-serious premise and the fanciful science the movie is based on.

But there is no doubt that a special effects-driven thriller where greenhouse gas emissions trigger dramatic scenes of tornadoes consuming California's Hollywood sign, tropical hurricanes wrecking havoc in Canada, and tidal waves and 100-meter snowdrifts all but destroying New York City attracts more attention than a process marked by technical debates over obscure points of procedure.

But that's just where the real changes are taking place, however slowly.

The international debate on how to best combat climate change is gradually switching from one of mitigation -- curbing the rise in greenhouse gas emissions thought to cause global warming -- toward one of trying to adapt to changes that may already be inevitable.

The glacial pace of these changes lack the drama of a cinema thriller, but scientists say the effects are real: unpredictable temperatures and rainfall patterns that make agricultural production in many parts of the world more difficult, in addition to other problems caused by floods, droughts and power failures.

"Progress in a process like this is never easy, and sometimes it seems like it doesn't come at all," Corrado Clini, the director-general of Italy's Ministry of Environment and one of the key players in international climate change negotiations, told United Press International. "It's not apparent how much has been accomplished until we look back and see how far we've come."

International climate change became a global issue at the 1992 Earth Summit, five years before the Kyoto Protocol was drafted in Japan. Since then, much of the effort on the international stage has been focused on bringing the Kyoto agreement -- which requires 36 industrialized countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5.2 percent between 1990 and 2012 -- into force.

That is a step that now requires ratification by the United States or Russia in order to surpass the threshold of being approved by countries representing 55 percent of the industrialized world's greenhouse gas emissions in 1990. Washington declared that it would not ratify the pact in 2001, and for the last several years Russia has been sending out mixed signals.

In the meantime, the process inches forward. The next big round of talks on the topic will take place in Argentina in December, and negotiations at the latest round here in Bonn -- with the very non-Hollywood sounding title of the 20th Session of the Subsidiary Bodies to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change -- focused a great deal of attention on what would be talked about once discussions get underway in Buenos Aires.

The Kyoto Protocol is not expected to enter into force before those talks begin, which leaves negotiators discussing the shape that worldwide strategies for confronting climate change will take after 2012, the last year regulated by the protocol's emissions reductions targets. That is where the adaptation discussions come into play.

"Adaptation has always been a part of the debate, but it is being emphasized more now," Joke Waller-Hunter, the general-secretary of the U.N.'s climate change secretariat said. "We understand that even if Kyoto targets were met starting tomorrow that some atmospheric changes cannot be avoided and must be adapted to."

Adaptation is a problem that affects poor countries much more than rich ones, because they lack early warning systems, infrastructure to adapt to severe weather changes, and because economies based on agriculture and the production of raw materials are more easily slowed by factors like flooding and droughts.

"When people talk about the shift from trying to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to trying adapt to variations in weather patterns caused by climate change, one thing that means is that the responsibility shifts from wealthy countries to poorer ones," Juan Mancebo from the delegation from the Dominican Republic at the recent Bonn talks told United Press International.

In Bonn, none of the discussions were likely to attract the attention of any big-name scriptwriters: Debate simmered for parts of three days before concluding that a three-hour panel discussion in Buenos Aires would be called "Technology and Climate Change" rather than "Energy, Technology and Climate Change" -- a title that made the Saudi Arabian delegation balk.

Another debate over how often developing countries should be required to report on their progress in developing domestic measures related to climate change stalled when most of the countries that would have been required to report refused to agree they should report at all.

A third debate centered on whether the term "effective participation" in negotiations meant that participants had to be in the same room as discussions or whether an adjacent room was good enough.

"This is like looking at something through a microscope, where it can all seem small and insignificant," Pat Finnegan, the director of the Irish environmental group Grian, told UPI. "But when you pull back and see it from a distance, you realize it adds up to something very important."

© 2004 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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