by William M. Reilly
UNITED NATIONS, March 16 (Xinhua) -- Reports on climate change are like the persistent drip of a leaky faucet getting louder and more frequent. The dire consequences forecast for planet Earth are becoming less a trickle and more a torrent.
The global recession is the latest factor to complicate the equation.
In Rio de Janeiro last week, Britain's Prince Charles, long an advocate for the environment, told a business luncheon, "We are facing a series of challenges so immense that we can, perhaps, be forgiven for feeling they are all too forbidding to confront," the Telegraph online site reported on Friday. He quoted Chico Mendes, the Brazilian environmentalist, who said "we are all fighting for humanity."
However, a bright note, perhaps.
After meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington last week, Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations voiced optimism about reaching a global agreement on a new climate change treaty at the December UN climate conference in Copenhagen, despite the recession.
Scientists have backed away from using the contested "global warming" moniker, because of temporary colder temperatures, to use "climate change" as the title of choice to describe the effect on the Earth's greenhouse gases by more than 150 years of industrial activity. Greenhouse gases, mostly water vapor, protect the earth's temperature.
Climate change still refers to higher temperatures: desertification, more severe storms, rising sea levels inundating crop land and all contributing to the food crisis and the increasing cost to eat.
Interjected into this mix recently was the effect of diverting crops from food to fuel, or bio-fuel.
The UN World Health Organization warns climate change has adverse consequences for health and is difficult to reverse over a human lifetime. The hazards WHO cites range from risks of extreme weather to effects on infectious disease dynamics and sea level rise leading to salt water affecting land and water sources.
And, the rate of climate change is increasing, so much so that more than 2,500 leading environment experts held an emergency meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in Copenhagen last week. It was in preparation for the December confab.
One of the more notable warnings out of the three-day session was that sea levels are likely to rise 1 meter by the end of this century, almost double the projection made in 2007. Scientists reported the polar ice caps are melting at faster rate than previously known.
Food prices started to rise in 2003 and climbed for five years, until dropping, but not to their historical levels, the International Monetary Fund says. In other words, as everybody knows, prices are still high.
Increases in food prices around the world hurt everyone, but hit the poorest of the poor the hardest, forcing them to spend a larger proportion of their meager income on food. That translates into either less food or less nutritious food, says the World Food Program of the United Nations, or even forcing them to seek outside help to meet nutritional needs.
The more prosperous in the world spend perhaps 10-20 percent of their income for food, the Rome-based agency says. But the least well-off spend 60-80 percent of their income for food.
Countries most affected in the food crisis are those importing large quantities and where inflation already is high, and those that already suffer food insecurity and have large urban populations.
The International Monetary Fund says food price increases have significant social implications as exhibited early last year by food riots and strikes in several African countries.
It said the price levels posed new challenges for African policymakers, in particular because, once again, food represents a larger share of what poorer consumers buy.
It was only on Thursday the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) released "World Population Prospects: The 2008 Revision" based on the latest statistics available. It said the present world population was 6.8 billion people. Last year, it said more than half of the people in the world were living in urban areas. Now UNFPA projects the global population to reach 9.1 billion in 2050.That means more pressure for greater food production.
When the secretary-general met the president on Tuesday it was only the third such meeting between the U.S. head of state and a world leader since Obama took office on Jan. 20, and this played up the significance he attaches to the world organization.
"I think the United Nations can be an extraordinarily constructive, important partner in bringing about peace and stability and security to people around the world," Obama said during a session with reporters after their White House meeting.
"We talked about the economic crisis and how that's affecting not only developed countries, but very poor countries around the world, and the potential threat to food supplies if it continues to worsen, and the need for international coordination," the president said when listing the topics of conversation.
"Secretary Ban has spoken extensively about the issue of climate change, and as all of you know, this is something that my administration is deeply concerned about, as well," he said. "We're looking forward to working with some of the major countries involved to figure out how, even in the midst of economic crisis, we can move forward and prevent what could be longer-term ecological crises that could have a tremendously adverse effect on the international economy if we don't take action."
Climate change, the secretary-general told the president, "is apriority for the United Nations and for whole international community. I am going to focus and work together with the leaders of the world to address this issue, to unlock all this massive investment for the green economic recovery, and also to save our planet. This is an issue of our era."
The "United Nations stands ready to work together with you, Mr. President, to make this make-or-break year turn into make-it-work, full of optimism and resolution," Ban added.
Officials in the UN system working on climate change previously had hailed the Obama administration's willingness to work with them on the problem.
At a Rome meeting in June 2008, policy makers said reaching global food security in light of the impact of climate change may be one of the biggest challenges the planet faces in this century. More than 860 million people in the world suffer from hunger. Of those, about 830 million live in developing countries, the very countries expected to be most affected by climate change.
During the three-day UN Food and Agricultural Organization's High-Level Conference on World Food Security: The Challenges of Climate Change and Bio-energy at the FAO's Rome headquarters, heads of state and government, high-level ministers and non-governmental and civil society organizations called on the international community to increase assistance for developing countries, in particular the least developed countries and those most adversely affected by high food prices.
There was general agreement agriculture would play a prominent role on the international agenda and that increased agricultural investment and enhanced agricultural productivity would be crucial. Did the diversion from agricultural production to biofuels cause the spike in food prices? Not solely, the experts said, but it was a big part of the problem.
The IMF blamed several factors.
It said, "Strong food demand from emerging economies, reflecting stronger per capita income growth," accounted for much of the increase in consumption. "The recent sustained period of high global growth contributed to depleting global inventories, particularly of grains."
Rising bio-fuel production added to the demand for corn and rapeseeds oil, in particular, spilling over to other foods through demand and crop substitution effects, the Washington-based institution said.
"Almost half the increase in consumption of major food crops in2007 was related to bio-fuels, mostly because of corn-based ethanol production in the United States; and the new bio-fuel mandates in the United States and the European Union that favor domestic production will continue to put pressure on prices," the IMF said.
Other factors the fund cited were that supply adjustment to higher prices was slow, notably for oil, and inventory levels in many markets declined to the lowest levels in years.
Policy responses in some countries exacerbated the problem, the fund said. Those policy problems included major exporting countries introducing export taxes, export bans, or other restrictions on exports of agricultural products and some importing countries not allowing full pass-through of international prices into domestic prices.
Drought conditions in major wheat-producing countries such as Australia and Ukraine, higher input costs, as for animal feed, energy, and fertilizer, and restrictive trade policies in major net exporters of key food staples such as rice also contributed to the situation, the IMF said.
Other financial factors included the depreciating U.S. dollar increasing purchasing power of commodity users outside of the dollar area; falling policy interest rates in some major currencies reducing inventory holding costs and inducing shifts from money market instruments to higher-yielding assets such as commodity-indexed funds.
Advanced negotiations are to get underway on March 29 in Bonn in preparation for the Copenhagen meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) beginning Dec. 7. The December meeting is to agree on what can be done to reduce warming of the planet.
The 1994 UNFCCC was ratified by 192 nations and is nonbinding. The follow-up 1997 Kyoto Protocol was ratified by 184 countries, went into effect four years ago and is binding. It sets binding targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European community for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The reductions amount to an average of 5 percent against 1990 levels over the five-year period 2008-2012.