“Most of us sense that the Earth is more than a sphere of rock with a thin layer of air, ocean, and life covering the surface. We feel that we belong here, as if this planet were indeed our home. Long ago the Greeks, thinking this way, gave to the Earth the name of Gaia (1)” - James Lovelock
British independent scientistJames Lovelock proposed the Gaia hypothesis, which postulates that the biosphere is a self-regulating entity with the capacity to keep our planet healthy by controlling the chemical and physical environment (2).
Some scientist and members of the geo-theistic movement of the latter part of the 20th century subsequently suggested that the human body is solely composed of elements found on Earth. Therefore, we exist as a product of the Earth, or as a living manifestation thereof.
Theologian Thomas Berry suggested that each organism possesses a specialized function or role in this biosphere. Human beings bequeathed the gift or specialized function of higher intellect, must serve as the consciousness of the Earth and, therefore, must take the role of self-regulator of the Earth (8).
Following Berry’s logic, one may ask how have we done thus far?
To understand the current ecological crisis, we must develop a framework to that understanding. Nature does present processes that negatively affect the environment. We, the people, must take ownership of the other portion. In geo-political terms, the latter referred to as anthropogenic impact on the environment.
The scope of this article focuses on greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) as it relates to the global political scene.
On May 9, 1992, the United Nation’s conference on Environment and Development, also known as the “Earth Summit”, gave birth to the United Nation’s Framework Convention on Climate Change hereafter known as the UNFCCC. This treaty, a non-binding agreement among members of the United Nations, had 194 signatories as of 2011. Based on principle, it was an acknowledgement of a global environmental crisisand requires measures be taken to curb GHG emissions.
The above agreement also set the stage for an annual Conference of Parties (COP) with the inaugural session taking place on March 21, 1994. November 27, 2011, saw the 17th gathering of COP. Of particular note was COP 3 held in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997 wherein enacted was a legally binding agreement hereafter known as the Kyoto Protocol.
In a pre-emptive measure (five months prior to), the 105th Congress of the United States passed the Byrd-Hagel Resolution (S. Res 98) in a 95-0 bi-partisan vote disallowing the United States’ participation in any legally binding UNFCCC Protocol. To date, the U.S. has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol.
The legislation cited two reasons for non-participation in any pact with the UNFCCC. 1) Dispute regarding China’s placement on the “developing nations” listing, while the United States found itself on the Annex B listing. The difference between the two listings was significant as the Annex B countries are held to higher standards and more pronounced limitations, 2) the economic risk to the United States were they to take part in a strict regulatory process (3).
Attempting to sidestep the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol, the Obama Administration through the G8 summit is running a parallel course. For all intent and purposes, the G8, or Group of Eight, summit lacks administrative authority and is not capable of any legally binding measures. The G8 is merely a collective group of world leaders who meet annually to discuss global issues. Regional meetings and the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate launched by US President Barack Obama in March 2009 was to address environmental issues.
High level talks were held at the meeting of the G8+5 Climate Change Dialogue in February 2007 (4) and at a number of subsequent G8 meetings, most recently leading to the adoption of the G8 leaders declaration "Responsible Leadership for a Sustainable Future" during Italy G8 summit in July 2009 (5).
With the assistance of the International Energy Agency, energy efficiency will be the focus of the 2012 G8 summit scheduled to take place in Chicago. China and the United States are both players in the G8 summit and, politically, will allow both countries to reach some accord concerning environmental issues, though that accord is and will not be legally binding.
In 1990, the IPCC recorded baseline GHG emissions levels. The Kyoto Protocol sought a 5.2% emissions decrease from industrialized nations who did ratify the protocol (annex B). Ironically, those nations surpassed expectations by reaching a 17% collective decrease, while the United States had a 17% increase in GHG emissions. China, not on the annex B listing, registered a 153% increase (6).
COP 17 begins November 28, 2011, in Durban South Africa. With the 2012 expiration of the Kyoto Protocol, it is foreseeable that officials will begin laying the foundations for any amendments and/or changes in the framework of this Kyoto Protocol.
Moving forward, scientists project a bleak future for most earthly organisms should current trends continue. We are looking at complete systems breakdown across the board, devastating climatic changes along with increases in natural disasters, possible extinction of 70% of current species and the eventual demise of humanity itself (7).
If Thomas Berry was correct, that humanity serves as the consciousness of the Earth and, if by implication, we are the regulator and essential protector, then he have failed miserably at our task. Over the next few centuries, the Earth will remain but we in it will no longer exist.
1) Lovelock, James Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979)
8) Chapter 11, pp. 151-158 in Charles Birch, William Eaken and Jay B. McDaniel (eds.) Liberating Life: Contemporary Approaches in Ecological Theology, published 1990 by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York 10545.
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