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Page added on September 29, 2007

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The Earth is out of time

ANOTHER week on a changing planet. Australian farmers struggling through the worst drought on record are offered $150,000 by Canberra to walk off their land. Federal police chief Mick Keelty declares climate change – not terrorism – as the greatest threat to national security (a position doused down yesterday to an “equal” threat). Scientists drop a red-hot report forecasting catastrophic wildfires as a regular hazard of Australian summers. Suburbanites spooked by drought-inflated grocery bills contemplate a return to the vegie patch, but how to water it?

And far away, in the melting permafrost of Russia’s Arctic, mammoth dung is released in a putridly poetic message – from one long-lost species to another distinctly nervous one – about the vulnerability of all creatures on this merciless earth.

The mammoth never got the memo to act, adapt or perish. The same can’t be said of humanity. Twenty years after concerns about global warming were first raised in the UN General Assembly, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed to 80 heads of state and government gathered in New York on Monday to break through the imbroglio over cutting carbon emissions – the entwined issues of how, and who pays – with the declaration that “inaction now will prove the costliest action of all in the long term”.

Californian Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger summoned the language of his screen alter-ego to demand “action, action, action” in New York. UK Environment Secretary Hilary Benn begged an absent President George Bush to agree to mandatory caps of greenhouse gases. “It is inconceivable that dangerous climate change can be avoided without this happening,” Benn said.

The meeting was the 13th major international gathering on climate change this year. It was one of two high-level meetings just this week – the other rival get-together of 16 nations, including Australia, summoned by Bush, winds up in Washington today. That closed meeting has its focus on technological fixes, and is expected to hold the US line against mandatory emissions caps and against any deal that does not include constraints on rapidly developing, big-polluting countries such as China and India. More cynical Europeans wonder if the Bush meeting is a spoiler, set up to undermine the talks that really matter – in Bali in December, when negotiators will begin to thrash out an international plan to succeed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

The distance between the bottom lines expressed in New York and Washington remains as vast as ever. The question, then, is whether all this hot air is doing anything to bring the temperature down?

The Age (Melbourne, Australia)

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