Climate change and the environment: an overview

The threat of climate change and global warming, fueled by relentless commercialization and excessive consumption, has turned into a fighting ground for both policymakers and concerned citizens. The coming decade is set to determine not only a collective response to reducing carbon emissions, but the entire future direction for international development and the global justice movement. Below is a brief overview, some key facts and further resources that relate to climate change.


A global awareness of environmental degradation and the threat of climate change reached new heights by the end of 2007.  First, the worldwide pop concerts for Live Earth initiated a three-year campaign to combat climate change.  Al Gore was then awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize along with the United Nations for their work in raising awareness of the man-made "climate crisis".  Lastly, at the end of the year, an international consensus was sought at a major UN conference in Bali for a road map on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
Despite this growing attentiveness to the environment, the central cause of the sustainability conundrum is unaddressed by mass public campaigns, and far less heeded by government leaders or policymakers.  The problem was outlined as far back as the early 1970s, foremost in a report called Limits to Growth and the work of E. F. Schumacher, which both challenged the crux of orthodox thinking on economic development. The planet has limited resources and a finite carrying capacity, it was argued, while the demands placed upon it by a growth-dependent economy and the grossly materialistic lifestyles it engenders are insatiable. Continuous economic growth and global development therefore cannot be achieved without an immense overuse of resources, a fierce assault on nature, a high degree of pollution, and a threat to the planets ability to sustain life. 

The Extent of the Crisis

This message, although often muddied by multinational corporations, has become unavoidable over the past 30 years of economic globalisation. Out of 40,000 living species studied, more than 16,000 are now in danger of extinction.  One out of four mammals is under threat.  Eighty percent of the world's coral reefs have been bleached, several small islands have disappeared under the rising sea, and desertification in Africa is already causing widespread famine.  Rainforests, which once covered 14% of the earth's land surface compared to a mere 6% today, will be completely consumed in less than 40 years if current trends continue. 
During the last 200 years of industrial development, a massive 30 percent increase in carbon emissions has contributed to harrowing changes in climate.  Of the last 1,000 years, 2005 was the hottest.  And with 2007 hailed as witnessing the most extreme weather events on record (characterised by a six-fold increase in floods since 1980, a quadrupling of natural disasters, and the recent collapse of the Arctic ice cap), dire forecasts for the near future are being released in scores of eminent studies.  Unless a drastic reduction in carbon emissions is achieved, more than a million plants and animals could be extinct by 2050, accompanied by widespread hunger, catastrophic flooding, and higher deaths from heat-waves.
The heaviest burden will inevitably be felt in the poorest and most vulnerable nations, with some smaller countries potentially facing an agricultural productivity collapse in coming decades.  A decrease in food security due to climate change is not only likely to vastly exacerbate malnutrition in developing countries, but forced migration could affect 1 billion people by 2050.  As argued by UN General-Secretary Ban Ki-moon, climate change already threatens the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals by 2015 and the elimination of widespread poverty.  If those countries that have done the least to contribute to global warming are going to pay the highest price, the most important issue clearly involves a moral responsibility on behalf of industrialised nations to redress the ‘carbon debt' owed to developing countries.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

The final reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released throughout 2007, have revealed how climate change could soon become one of the greatest threats to human life.  Concluding that carbon dioxide and other atmospheric polluting gases must be reduced by 50 to 85 percent before 2050 to head off potential cataclysmic changes, the report calculated that a drastic reworking is required of industrial processes, transportation systems and agricultural practices.  In the meantime, rich countries are rapidly increasing the pollution that causes global warming to record levels - despite the solemn pledges to reduce it.  Total emissions of greenhouse gases by the world's 40 industrial nations have risen to an all-time high, demand for fossil fuels is ever-increasing, and the limits of natural resources are further threatened by emerging giant economies like China and India.
The result is an underlying conflict of interest in world priorities between the relentless opening of a country's barriers to international competition and the unrestrained movement of goods and services, versus the need to cooperatively manage the global economy to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.  The state of the environment shows how both approaches are incompatible; neoliberal policies of trade liberalisation and continuous economic growth are in effect rules that force countries on a high emissions pathway, leading to environmental degradation in the blind pursuit of corporate profits and increased Gross National Product. 

More Justice, Less Consumption

Although ‘climate justice' is often used as an umbrella term to include the questions of individual responsibility for the environment and collective First World accountability, the issue is driven by the same interlinked questions of unsustainable consumption, ever-increasing commercialisation and social justice.  If countries of the Global North are to achieve the necessary reduction in carbon emissions, a transformation is required in the way we manage the world economy, coupled with an extensive reduction in consumption levels by the richest nations and greater equity in resource usage between nations.
It is at this level of international policy that there is a clear parallel with the other key issue of our time - poverty and hunger. Ending poverty will initially require a greater sharing of the world's finite natural and productive resources, and this in turn will entail living more simply in rich countries so that others ‘may simply live'. All this must be coordinated internationally, in line with widely accepted models of contraction and convergence which present the only truly equitable solution to the climate change conundrum. The prospect of saving the environment is not without great hope and optimism, however, as evidenced in the emergent formation of a global mass movement that must decisively influence the necessary change in direction.

Key facts

Climate Change Basics

"The world has less than a decade to change course. No issue merits more urgent attention-or more immediate action." (HDR 2007)[1]
Globally, it is ‘very likely' that the 1990s was the warmest decade and 1998 the warmest year in the instrumental record, since 1861.  Eleven of the past 12 years are among the dozen warmest since 1850.[2]
The rate of warming is increasing. The 20th century's last two decades were the hottest in 400 years and possibly the warmest for several millennia, according to a number of climate studies.
Average temperatures have climbed 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degree Celsius) around the world since 1880, much of this in recent decades.[3]
Global mean temperature should increase by between 1.4 and 5.8°C, reported the IPCC in 2001.[4]
Since then, some reputed climate scientists have argued that this range is too low.  Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, for example, makes a rough estimate that the global temperature could rise by between 7 and 10 degrees centrigade.[5]
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) levels have been rising over the past century faster than at any time over the past 20,000 years.[6]
The consensus of scientific opinion is that global temperatures must be stopped from rising to more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels, which means more than 1.4 degrees above the current point.  Even a one degree rise in temperature, however, could result in further serious droughts, water stress, increased hunger and species extinctions.[7]
According to calculations extracted from Met office figures by the environmentalist George Monbiot, rich countries need to cut emissions by an average of 90 percent by 2030 to prevent a two degrees rise in global temperatures.

Conclusions from the United Nations

 It is "very likely" that human activity is causing climate change (called anthropogenic climate change), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said in the February 2007 report. The report, based on the work of around 2,500 scientists in more than 130 countries, concluded that humans have caused all or most of the current planetary warming.
At the current rate of carbon emissions, global average temperatures will rise 2°C by 2050.
To avoid heating the globe by two degrees centigrade (since 2000), the world's spiralling growth in greenhouse gas emissions must end no later than 2015, and must start to drop quickly after that peak.[8]
By 2050, carbon dioxide and other atmospheric polluting gases must be reduced by 50 to 85 percent to head off potential catastrophic changes, according to the UN estimates.  This will require a drastic reworking of industrial processes, transportation, agricultural practices and even the buildings people live in, the report calculated.  However the scientists who wrote the report officially declined to recommend such a threshold because it "involves value judgments."[9]
If the world misses this target and does not stabilize carbon dioxide emissions until 2030, for example, the planet's temperature will increase by as much as 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit above 2000 temperatures. That level of warming would result in widespread extinctions of species, a slowing of the global currents, decreased food production, loss of 30 percent of global wetlands, flooding for millions of people and higher deaths from heat waves.[10]
The IPCC final report warns that in spite of the protocols adopted by many Western countries after Kyoto, greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise by between 25 and 90 per cent by 2030. The report also predicts a rise in global warming of around 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade.[11]
Rich countries are rapidly increasing the pollution that causes global warming to record levels - despite having solemnly undertaken to reduce it.  Total emissions of greenhouse gases - mainly carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide - by the world's 40 industrialised nations have risen to "to an all-time high", although they are supposed to be diminishing under the Kyoto Protocol.  This was the harshest warning to date from the congenitally cautious IPCC.[12]

State of the Climate

Concentrations of both carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere have reached record levels - causing the planet to heat up faster than ever before.  The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - the main greenhouse gas, responsible for about two-thirds of man-made global warming, mainly released by burning fossil fuels - jumped by some 2 per cent last year (2006), one of its sharpest-ever rises. The rate of increase has accelerated markedly since the 1990s. Concentrations are now 36 per cent higher than during the 10,000 years leading up to the beginning of the industrial revolution. Altogether, the heating of the Earth by greenhouse gases has grown by 22.7 per cent since 1990.[13]
The average global temperature over the past century has climbed by 0.6 degrees centigrade.  According to the World Meteorological Organization, the increase in temperature in the twentieth century is likely to have been the largest of any century during the past 1,000 years.[14]
According to the UNDP's Human Development Report 2007, if the next 15 years of emissions follow the linear trend of the past 15, dangerous climate change will become unavoidable. On the basis of current trends and present policies, concentrations of carbon dioxide could rise by more than 50 per cent over 2005 levels by 2030. Political action continues to fall far short of the minimum needed to resolve the climate change problem. The gap between scientific evidence and political response remains large.  Most of the rich countries that have signed up to Kyoto are off track for achieving their commitments.[15]
If everyone on Earth emitted as much greenhouse gas as North Americans, we would need nine atmospheres to absorb it all safely.[16]
At the present rate the world will, within the next 25 years, emit the entire amount of carbon dioxide that the atmosphere can safely take over the entire 21st century.[17]
Rich countries are responsible for seven out of every 10 tons of carbon dioxide emitted since the industrial revolution.[18]
Natural disasters have quadrupled over the last two decades, from an average of 120 a year in the early 1980s to as many as 500 today. The number of people affected by disasters has risen from an average of 174 million a year between 1985 to 1994, to 254 million a year between 1995 to 2004. Earlier this year the Asian floods alone affected 248 million people. There has been a six-fold increase in floods since 1980. The number of floods and wind-storms have risen from 60 in 1980 to 240 last year.[19]

Future warnings

According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a top security think-tank: "The most recent international moves towards combating global warming represent a recognition... that if the emission of greenhouse gases... is allowed to continue unchecked, the effects will be catastrophic - on the level of nuclear war."  The report added: "Even if the international community succeeds in adopting comprehensive and effective measures to mitigate climate change, there will still be unavoidable impacts from global warming on the environment, economies and human security."  The report said the effects would cause a host of problems including rising sea levels, forced migration, freak storms, droughts, floods, extinctions, wildfires, disease epidemics, crop failures and famines.[20]
As many as 150 million people in the world's big coastal cities are likely to be at risk from flooding by the 2070s, more than three times as many as now, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Climate change, population growth and urban development will mean the number at risk will rise from the current 40 million while total property and infrastructure exposure is forecast to rise to $35 trillion - 9 percent of projected global GDP.[21]
The tropical belt that girdles the Earth is expanding north and south, which could have dire consequences for large regions of the world where the climate is likely to become more arid or more stormy. Climate change is having a dramatic impact on the tropics by pushing their boundaries towards the poles at an unprecedented rate not foreseen by computer models, which had predicted this sort of poleward movement only by the end of the century.[22]
Sea level could rise between 7 and 23 inches (18 to 59 centimeters) by century's end, according to the IPCC's February 2007 report. Rises of just 4 inches (10 centimeters) could flood many South Seas islands and swamp large parts of Southeast Asia.[23]
By 2050, rising temperatures exacerbated by human-induced belches of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases could send more than a million of Earth's land-dwelling plants and animals down the road to extinction.[24]

Climate Change in the Developing World

Developing countries, many of which have average temperatures that are already near or above crop tolerance levels, are predicted to suffer an average 10 to 25 percent decline in agricultural productivity by the 2080s, assuming a so-called "business as usual" scenario in which greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase.  According to a study based on the IPCC findings, rich countries - which typically have lower average temperatures - will experience a much milder or even positive average effect, ranging from an 8 percent increase in productivity to a 6 percent decline.  Individual developing countries face even larger declines. India, for example, could see a drop of 30 to 40 percent. Some smaller countries suffer what could only be described as an agricultural productivity collapse. Sudan, already wracked by civil war fuelled in part by failing rains, is projected to suffer as much as a 56 percent reduction in agricultural production potential; Senegal, a 52 percent fall.[25]
Climate change is already starting to affect some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities around the world. A worldwide average 3° centigrade increase (compared to preindustrial  temperatures) over the coming decades would result in a range of localized increases that could reach twice as high in some locations. The effect that increased droughts, extreme weather events, tropical storms and sea level rises will have on large parts of Africa, on many small island states and coastal zones will be inflicted in our lifetimes. In terms of aggregate world GDP, these short term effects may not be large. But for some of the world's poorest people, the consequences could be apocalyptic.[26]
Climate disasters are heavily concentrated in poor countries. Some 262 million people were affected by climate disasters annually from 2000 to 2004, over 98 percent of them in the developing world. In the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries one in 1,500 people was affected by climate disaster. The comparable figure for developing countries is one in 19-a risk differential of 79.[27]
In Ethiopia and Kenya, two of the world's most drought-prone countries, children aged five or less are respectively 36 and 50 percent more likely to be malnourished if they were born during a drought. For Ethiopia, that translates into some 2 million additional malnourished children in 2005. In Niger, children aged two or less born in a drought year were 72 percent more likely to be stunted. And Indian women born during a flood in the 1970s were 19 percent less likely to have attended primary school.[28]
Christian Aid predicts that, on current trends, a further 1 billion people will be forced from their homes between now and 2050. Forced migration is the most urgent threat facing poor people in developing countries, they argue, affecting some 155 million men, women and children who have had no choice but to flee their homes and seek refuge elsewhere in their own countries.  This figure of one billion comprises:
  • 50 million people displaced by conflict and extreme human rights abuses (assuming a rate of displacement of roughly 1 million people a year, which is conservative);
  • 50 million people displaced by natural disasters (again conservatively assuming that around 1 million people will be displaced in this way every year);
  • 645 million people displaced by development projects such as dams and mines (at the current rate of 15 million a year);
  • 250 million people permanently displaced by climate change-related phenomena such as floods, droughts, famines and hurricanes; 5 million people will flee their own countries and be accepted as refugees.[29]
The human drama of climate change will largely be played out in Asia, where over 60 per cent of the world's population, around four billion people, live. Over half of those live near the coast, making them directly vulnerable to sea-level rise. Disruption to the region's water cycle caused by climate change also threatens the security and productivity of the food systems upon which they depend.[30]
A decrease in food security due to climate change is likely to exacerbate the monumental problem of malnutrition in the developing world.  Just two nations, India and China combined, account for well over one-third of the world's population. Across the two over 250 million people saw their incomes rise above US$1 a day between 1990 and 2001. Yet even at income levels of around US$1 a day, infant mortality rates as high as one in six are common. Malnutrition has also been less effectively tackled, particularly in South Asia, where around half the population of 0- to 5-year-olds are malnourished.[31]
Widespread droughts in Indian states, such as Maharashtra, in recent years have contributed to soaring suicide rates among heavily indebted farmers.[32]

Further resources



[1] Quote taken from Kevin Watkins et al. Human Development Report 2007/2008: Fighting climate change: Human solidarity in a divided world (United Nations Development Programme, December 2007) p 7.

[2] IPCC TAR SPM of WG1 pages 2 & 3

[3] See NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

[4] IPCC. Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis, Summary for Policymakers (2007), p.12-13

[5] Cited by George Monbiot, Heat, ibid, p 13.

[6] ‘Climate Change 2001: Working Group I - The Scientific Basis' (IPCC, 2001)

[7] Monbiot, ibid, p 15.

[8] see IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (released in Valencia, Spain, 17th November 2007).  Cited by Doug Struck. ‘Emissions Growth Must End in 7 Years, U.N. Warns' (Washington Post, 18th November 2007)

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (called the Synthesis Report, released in Valencia, Spain, 17th November 2007). See ‘UN Delivers Chilling Conclusion on Climate' (CNN, 17 November 2007)

[12] Information released in the first of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), November 2007.  See Geoffrey Lean. Rich countries blamed as greenhouse gas emissions hit record(Independent, 3rd December 2007)

[13] Information released by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO's) annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin.  See Geoffrey Lean, ibid, 3rd December 2007.

[14] Cited in George Monbiot. Heat: How to stop the planet burning (Penguin, 2006) p 4.

[15] Kevin Watkins et al. Human Development Report 2007/2008: Fighting climate change: Human solidarity in a divided world (United Nations Development Programme, December 2007)

[16] Geoffrey Lean, ibid.

[17] Geoffrey Lean, ibid.

[18] Geoffrey Lean, ibid.

[19] Climate Alarm: Disasters increase as climate change bites (Oxfam International policy briefing, 25th November 2007)

[20] Cited in Jeremy Lovell. Global Warming Impact Like ‘Nuclear War' (Reuters, 13th September 07)

[21] Simon Challis, 150 million to face flood risk by 2070 (Environmental News Network / Reuters)

[22] See the online journal, Nature Geoscience. Cited in Steve Connor. Expanding tropics 'a threat to millions' (Independent, 3rd December 2007)

[23] See IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Working Group I Report, "The Physical Science Basis".

[24] Study published in the science journal Nature.  See John Roach. ‘By 2050 Warming to Doom Million Species, Study Says' (National Geographic, July 12, 2004)

[25] William Cline. Global Warming and Agriculture: Impact Estimates by Country (Global Warming and Agriculture: Impact Estimates by Country, July 2007). 

[26] Quote taken from Kevin Watkins et al. Human Development Report 2007/2008: Fighting climate change: Human solidarity in a divided world (United Nations Development Programme, December 2007) p 3.

[27] Ibid, p 16.

[28] Ibid, pp 16-17.

[29] Human Tide: The real migration crisis (resulting from climate change) (Christian Aid report, May 2007) pp 1-6

[30] Up In Smoke? Asia and the Pacific (New Economics Foundation et al, November 2007) p 3.

[31] Ibid, p 4.

[32] Ibid.