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Listen to the First Victims of Climate Change
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By Ban Ki-moon

So, the lines are drawn. As the industrialized nations of the Group of Eight gather in Heiligendamm, the forces mustered to fight global warming have divided into competing camps.
Germany and Britain seek urgent talks on a new climate change treaty, to go into effect when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. They talk of stiff measures to curb carbon emissions and limit the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius over the coming four decades.

The United States, offering an initiative of its own, opposes what it considers to be arbitrary targets and timetables.

We shall see how all this unfolds. But while the US and Europe debate, some basic facts are beyond dispute.

First, the science is clear. The earth's warming is unequivocal; we humans are its principle cause. Every day brings new evidence, whether it's the latest Greenpeace report on Mount Qomolangma's retreating glaciers or last week's discovery that the Antarctic Ocean can no longer absorb CO2. Think of that: the world's largest carbon trap has been filled to capacity.

Second, the time for action is now. The cost of not acting, most economists agree, will exceed the costs of acting early, probably by several orders of magnitude. The damage Hurricane Katrina inflicted on New Orleans may or may not have anything to do with global warming, but it's a useful caution on the financial and social perils of delay.

It's equally evident that we can no longer afford to endlessly parse our options. The solution du jour - the rage for carbon-trading - is but one weapon in our arsenal. New technologies, energy conservation, forestry projects and renewable fuels, as well as private markets, must all be part of a long-term strategy. So must adaptation. After all, mitigation can only go so far.

There's a third fact - as I see it, the most important of all. That's a basic issue of equity - a question of values, ranking among the great moral imperatives of our era. Global warming affects us all, yet it affects us all differently.

Wealthy nations possess the resources and know-how to adapt. An African farmer, losing crops or herds to drought and dust storms, or a Tuvalu islander worried his village might soon be under water, is infinitely more vulnerable.

It is a familiar divide: rich-poor, north-south. Put bluntly, solutions to global warming proposed by developed nations cannot come at the expense of less fortunate neighbors on the planet. How else would we achieve our UN Millenium Development Goals of halving world poverty - so solemnly laid down at previous G8 meetings - if the developing world's aspirations for a greater stake in global prosperity are not honored?

A sense of human dimension should govern any issue which we peoples of the world together must face, climate change included. I consider it a duty, an extension of the sacred obligation to protect, which is the foundation of the United Nations.

Each day, I walk through the lobby of UN headquarters in New York, where some of the world's most famous photojournalists are currently displaying their work. They capture the faces and voices of people too often unseen and unheard, from all parts of the globe, many of whom live daily in severe hardship made worse by climate change.

Our debates in the Security Council, often dull affairs conducted in opaque diplomatese, occasionally burst astonishingly to life - and for moments become anything but diplomatic. I recall in one discussion in April, when the representative of Namibia spoke out on his perception of the dangers of climate change. "This is no academic exercise," he all but shouted. "It is a matter of life or death for my country."

He told of how the Namib and Kalahari deserts are expanding, destroying farmland and rendering whole regions uninhabitable. This made me think of my own country, South Korea, more and more often choked by dust storms.

Malaria has spread to areas where it was once unknown, the Namibian representative went on. Species of plants and animals are dying out, in a land famed for its biodiversity. Developing countries like his own are increasingly subject to what he likened to "low-intensity biological or chemical warfare".

These are strong emotions, drawn from life and not imagined. For those in the developed world, it is important to hear, and to act accordingly. This is the message I will deliver over the coming days in Heiligendamm.

It is why I will soon announce a special high-level meeting on climate change, to be held in New York in September before the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly.

The meeting has been called for by Bangladesh, the Netherlands, Norway and Brazil, as well as Singapore, Barbados and Costa Rica. It is why I recently appointed three special envoys, whose brief is to speak out for the interests and concerns of nations most vulnerable to climate change, home to the vast majority of the world's people.

I welcome US President George W. Bush's recent declaration that he, too, will launch a US climate initiative. I urge that this take place within the UN's global framework for discussion, so that our work may be complementary and mutually reinforcing.

In December, the world's leaders will gather again in Bali to build on what is decided in Germany this week and in these subsequent meetings.

But let us remember: A G8 agreement that is not global in scope cannot hope to offer solutions to a global problem. It is time for new thinking and a new inclusiveness. We can no longer go about our business as usual.

The author is UN secretary-general. The article first appeared in the International Herald Tribune.

(China Daily June 8, 2007)

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