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It's time to have a UN green-keeping mission
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Environmental issues such as climate change have been the main theme of almost every global or regional high-level international meeting in recent years. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in its fourth report in November 2007 that climate change is becoming a major threat to the eco-environment and the human society's sustainable development.

Indeed, the threat to environment is a very pressing issue. And what is so alarming is that it is accelerating. Scientists pointed out recently that the Arctic ice and glaciers in Antarctica are melting so fast that this summer will enter the chronicles as the one with the least snowfall in recorded history. If the current trend continues the Artic summer will be iceless in 30 years' time.

Because over 90 percent of Earth's total ice reserves is located in the polar areas, it would cause the sea level to rise faster if the polar ice melts at an increasing pace and bring horrific calamities to the coastal regions throughout the world. Because the icy surfaces of the polar areas serve as two giant mirrors to reflect about 90 percent of sunlight on Earth, a growing amount of solar energy will be absorbed directly by land and the oceans as the polar ice caps disappear, speeding up the global warming process as a result.

Today developed countries, with only 15 percent of the world's population, dumps more than half of the carbon dioxide the world emits every year into the atmosphere. From 2000 to 2004 most of the eco-disasters caused by problems such as global warming happened in developing nations with the poor people there accounting for 98 percent of the 260 million victims worldwide annually.

One out of every five children living in the poorest regions of the world perishes before they turn five because of environmental pollution. The UN 2007/2008 Human Development Report points out: Decades of achievements by developing nations in eradicating poverty would be wasted if no immediate action is taken (to address the environmental issues) and may even set them back some years.

The per capita consumption of oil, coal and food in the US is 1,000, 500 and eight times that of Africa respectively. Poor people suffer the most from global warming even though they have never enjoyed the rich life that generates a lot of greenhouse gas.

Energy conservation and environmental protection are creating an enormous opportunity for development and businesses but only a small number of politicians are able to make environmental protection a priority in economic development, be they in developing or developed nations.

The outlook on scientific development put forward by Chinese leaders emphasizes harmony between human beings and nature, which not only aims at sustaining the nation's development but also represents a commitment to the world community.

From the industrial revolution of the 18th century to 1950 the developed countries accounted for 95 percent of the world's total carbon dioxide emission and even in the half a century from 1950 they still managed to release 77 percent of that. This means the developed nations gained advanced technology and capabilities at the expense of the whole human kind.

Remembering how reluctant the US and some other rich countries, which are responsible for global warming more than most other nations are and capable of dealing with it, have been until recently to work on the problem, people cannot but compare this outrageous situation to a sinking cruise ship on which the passengers are fixated with occupying first-class suites instead of joining efforts to sail the vessel toward safety.

Environment-related conflicts are very likely to happen over water resources first. A global "water crisis" may break out in the near future as a result of increasing droughts and other natural disasters caused by global warming, growing industrial consumption of water and worsening water pollution. Cross-national rivers nurture about half of all countries on our planet and those on the upper and lower reaches of the international rivers will find themselves frequently at each other's throat over the precious resource, making "water wars" a very possible scenario in the 21st century.

It is not enough to rely solely on technological advancement to overcome environmental crises and a fundamental change to mankind's ways of production, pattern of consumption and even social institutions is required. Or there is no hope of addressing the global blasphemy of some people leading an extremely luxurious and wasteful life while many others starve to death.

Today the American high-consumption and high-waste lifestyle is spreading throughout the world. People in developing countries may ask: Why can't we consume the way the Americans do if "all men are created equal". But the real question is how long our planet can provide if all of us consume the way the Americans do. The world's population will grow from 6.6 billion today to 8.2 billion in 2030 and 9 billion in 2050. Some scientists are convinced even 10 more Earths are not enough to sustain the current American rate of consumption on a global scale.

As environmental issues grow more serious by the day, the ability to deal with environmental crises, or "environmental power", is becoming a key factor of increasing significance in comprehensive national strength, hard or soft.

For hard strength, as enterprises produce "negative values" (such as pollution and hazardous waste) as well as "positive values", the present GDP calculation should count the former out. Likewise growing desertification will no doubt lead to the "actual loss" of land and related economic losses and the "land" in national strength calculation therefore should be scored lower.

For soft strength, as environmental issues become commanding topics in the diplomatic arena, "environmental power" will surely gain importance as part of a nation's "diplomatic strength" and become a major factor in its "national image". Also, amid raging battles for talents among nations of the world a hard-to-miss reality is that the better a country's environment is the more attractive it is to professionals of science and technology.

An overriding precondition for dealing with environmental crises is a set of human ethics or international ethics, of which the essence is never profit at the expense of others, also known as "the law of coexistence". Environmental crises have brought different places and nations together to such an extend that profiting at others' expense only ends up hurting oneself as well as others. Therefore the human kind should unite as one to deal with the common crises. It is the common ethics of the whole human kind as well as its common interest.

Renowned American scholar Lester Brown suggested recently the world has reached a point when it must address environmental issues through "wartime mobilization" tactics. This writer would like to follow the train of thought by calling for the inclusion of a "UN green-keeping mission" in the international agenda the same way UN peacekeeping missions are.

The author is a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

(China Daily July 10, 2008)

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