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NASA Droughts and floods linked to global warming threaten every continent, according to U.N.'s climate envoy.
Droughts and floods linked to global warming threaten every continent, according to U.N.’s climate envoy.

by Gretchen Roecker
Oct 04, 2011

U.N. special envoy on climate change Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland and her 22-person international commission started warning countries to avert global warming in 1987. Twenty-five years later, the former Norwegian prime minister said the ongoing lack of international cooperation to curb carbon emissions and invest in clean energy threatens us all.

Already, drought, hunger and disease connected to rising temperatures jeopardize “our common future,” she told a large audience at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

International investment in clean energy is crucial for putting people and the planet on track for a viable future, according to Brundtland, a world leader on global warming and human health. But sluggish national and global talks on climate change strategies means scenarios for severe consequences of fossil fuel-driven temperature rise etch a hazardous path for the world’s growing population.

“In the U.S. the debate has been much more divisive,” than in Europe, Brundtland said. “Based on the scientific evidence, questioning the human link to climate change ought to be history by now, but it’s not.”

Changing the politically divisive climate isn’t up to the politicians alone, Brundtland added, and people need to use their voting power to convince leaders to take action on an international scale.

“Many challenges of sustainable development can be solved within sectors, within countries – but not climate change,” Brundtland said. “We are all victimized, nobody can hide from it. ”

Linked problems, linked solutions

Climate change is directly tied to another of the most pressing global problems the world faces today – poverty, said Brundtland, former head of the World Health Organization.

About 70 percent of people in the developing world depend on agriculture, but the droughts and floods projected to increase with warming could threaten their livelihoods. At the same time, as countries industrialize, their energy demands climb. If fossil fuel-burning plants remain the cheapest, easiest option, the carbon emissions from these countries will soar.

Increasing both energy efficiency and use of renewable resources such as wind and solar power lie at the heart of a strategy to reduce emissions that could spur economic development where it is most needed, Brundtland said.

Energy innovation can benefit rich and poor countries alike.

“Clean energy projects will transfer technology to the developing world and will lead to substantial financial flows to developing countries,” she said, by allowing them to harness available sunlight and wind and supply energy needed for economic growth.

Reducing the world’s carbon footprint can’t rely on a handful of forward-thinking countries, Brundtland said. Heat trapped by carbon pumped out of coal-fired power plants in Illinois doesn’t warm only the Midwest. Expanding deserts inland and sea level rise on the coasts won’t respect geopolitical boundaries.

A common future

“What kind of world could we live in if we don’t take action?”

That question posed by Alexander Esche, a 23-year-old UIC chemical engineering graduate student, galvanized the urgency of Brundtland’s call to action to halt human-induced climate change.

“We have a number of very dangerous trends that are increasing,” Brundtland said, such as those visible in the poles’ rapidly melting ice caps, where fresh water is streaming into the oceans and sunlight normally reflected off snowy surfaces is being absorbed as heat, amplifying worldwide warming. “We are seeing the sea level increasing, so island states could be flooded over.”

UIC’s Institute for Environmental Science and Policy sponsored Brundtland’s talk on “Our Common Future: Sustainable Development in a Deteriorating World.”

More than 250 people packed the UIC conference rooms to hear her assessment of how to address the dual climate challenges of economic and environmental threats. The public lecture drew students, local environmental leaders and a number of Norwegian Americans, including Chicago attorney Paul Anderson, the honorary consul general of Norway for Illinois.

“It’s not every day we get one of the most famous Norwegians visiting Chicago,” Anderson said. “She’s such a dynamic force.” 

Brundtland served as Norway’s first female and youngest prime minister for 10 years. She directed the World Health Organization from 1998 to 2005. She was the driving force behind the U.N.’s Brundtland Commission, the 22-person group that defined challenges and strategies for sustainable development in its 1987 “Our Common Future” report.

Twenty-five years after “Our Common Future,” many of those challenges remain, Brundtland said.

“We warned about global warming, about desertification, forest degradation, scarcity of water and clean energy,” Brundtland said. “Trends today are still unsustainable. The climate threat is real and urgent.”

Changing the climate conversation

For Thomas Theis, the director of IESP, bringing Brundtland’s perspective to Chicago was a way to encourage discussion on a critical issue.

“We sponsor events like this to get the conversation going,” Theis said.

Brundtland stoked that conversation at UIC just two days before the final talks preparing for this winter’s U.N. Convention on Climate Change in South Africa, where member states will determine the fate of the expiring 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The protocol established an international emissions-reduction pact that the U.S. never ratified.

Denial of human-caused climate change and reluctance to put a price on carbon in the U.S. choke progress toward emission reductions and a clean energy economy, Brundtland said.

“We need to get involved in the political discussion, instead of just responding to it,” Theis said. “The issue of climate change is an important one, and it’s not going to go away 20 years down the road.”

Think locally, act globally

In order to spur international action, Brundtland said, it might be time to flip-flop the popular slogan “think globally, act locally” that has long girded sustainable development efforts.

Acting globally doesn’t mean ignoring opportunities to make individual cities more environmentally and economically sustainable, she said. Changes made on a local level, such as those envisioned by the Chicago Climate Action Plan, can help cool the global greenhouse.

“What you decide to do in this city determines the future: the city life, its parks, roads and transportation systems, its opportunities, its livelihoods,” she said.

The Chicago plan’s strategies include encouraging biking and walking, reducing air pollution and investing in solar and wind technology, all of which could benefit human, environmental and economic health.

“It’s a very ambitious plan, and it will be huge if it’s achieved,” Theis said. “It absolutely fits in the idea of sustainable development – it demands major reductions, but it’s holistic, because it looks at the health of citizens and of the city at the same time.”

Yet no single city can substitute for imperative global action, Brundtland said.

“There is no alternative to continue building the moral and the scientific basis for taking more shared responsibility across nations and continents,” Brundtland said. “It is up to each and every one of us to do our part in making that happen.”

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