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What Do Climate Change and the Titanic Have in Common?

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The world is on a collision course with climate change. We need real leadership to steer the ship away from catastrophe.

This week -- April 14, 2012 -- will mark the 100-year anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. The lost souls that went down with the ship should be haunting the climate change negotiators that produced the failure to tackle global climate change at the Copenhagen COP15 multilateral UN conference in December 2009. The COP16 conference in Cancun Mexico in 2010 did not substantially reverse the inertia from Copenhagen and seemed to accept the catastrophic irreversible two-degree rise in global temperatures as inevitable. Within a few decades we will be seeing millions of the poorest inhabitants of the planet succumbing to environmental catastrophes rather than evading them.

The Titanic is the most apt metaphor for our imperiled planet. The habitable environment of Earth is like the ship heading towards the iceberg that is catastrophic climate change. Already, scientists are contemplating that the tipping point of a two-degree rise will be reached sooner than expected, some say within 10 years, and the COP 16 conference seemed resigned to it. The difference between the ocean liner and climate change is that this time virtually everyone knows the ship is on a collision course with the iceberg. Yet there are some who refuse to help steer the ship away from the catastrophe unless everyone in the crew (read: world) helps.

Sadly, Canada is joined by many of the other richest countries in the world, like the United States, in insisting they will not agree to any climate change treaty at Copenhagen or at any other COP conference unless developing countries like India and China also agree to binding targets to reduce greenhouse emissions. The Canadian lifeboat is welded tightly to the sinking ship.

At the UN Climate Change Summit of some 100 world leaders that was organized in September of 2009 in New York, the Canadian Environment Minister, speaking for the absent Prime Minister Harper, continued to encourage full steam ahead on the climate change Titanic, while downplaying indications that a critical member of the crew, China, was willing to take some first substantial steps towards reducing emissions.

China announced a massive reforestation initiative to cover an area the size of Norway and pledged that within a decade, 15 per cent of its energy needs would come from renewable sources, including the increased use of nuclear energy and improved energy efficiency. President Hu Jintao seemed to understand the lesson of the Titanic when he said, "Out of a sense of responsibility to its own people and people across the world, China fully appreciates the importance and urgency of addressing climate change."

Even China, the potentially biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, is starting to realize the imperatives of climate justice. Just like the Titanic, the wealthy and most adaptable from the "First Class World" will jump into the lifeboats and try to save their most "worthy" citizens, while the poorest and the most vulnerable in the "Third Class World" will go down into waters and die when the "ship" has hit the two, three or four-degree iceberg.

This is the antithesis of climate justice, the concept that Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland (where the Titanic was built) and the President of the Climate Justice Foundation, is promoting around the world. Other world leaders must join her in her campaign to save the inhabitants of the "Third Class" section of the global Titanic.

Sadly the Canadian government, like other wealthy nations, is claiming they are waiting to see what the U.S. will do with its cap-and-trade legislation and then follow suit. Given the antipathy of the Republican Party to any such legislation, it means there will be no action in Canada, other than promises of an economy-wide emissions reduction target on a sector-by-sector basis for 2020 of 17 percent below 2005 levels, a target. The Canadian government claims this is aligned with the United States target, but the Harper government has already fallen significantly short.

So while senior crew members like Mary Robinson are warning that the time is running out to change course, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki- Moon says that "failure to reach broad agreement in Copenhagen would be morally inexcusable, economically short-sighted, and politically unwise," what have the delinquent crew members done? They put blindfolds on and refuse to look at the looming iceberg. Canada has even declared that it would be officially violating its Kyoto Protocol legal obligations.

It is time the "Third Class" section of the Titanic surprise them. Island nations, such as the Maldives, where the human right to life of every single inhabitant of that country and its future generations are threatened by rising sea levels, should take countries like Canada to the International Court of Justice for violating its international treaty obligations. While there is no global police force to enforce the international rule of law, the naming and shaming of climate change outlaws must begin and persist.

Citizens from the "First Class Section" of the Titanic need to tear the blindfolds off their elected leaders and demand that they work hard to avoid the fate of the global Titanic. The world needs leadership that demonstrates real moral courage. We should have a leading role in the development of a global consciousness to avoid the sinking of our planetary ship.