The current hot spot… South Pacific.

china droughtEyes are turning towards the Pacific, this time with some hope for political progress on the climate crisis.

First comes the election in Australia, where Kevin Rudd defeated incumbent Prime Minister John Howard largely on the backs of voters displeased with the conservative government’s position on climate change

Centre-left leader Kevin Rudd stormed to victory in Australia’s election Saturday, ending conservative Prime Minister John Howard’s 11-year rule with pledges to change course on climate change and the Iraq war…

Rudd also spoke of the hardship being suffered by Australian farmers, who are facing the country’s worst drought in a century, a crisis that has focused national attention on the issue of climate change and Howard’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol.

Rudd has pledged to ratify the protocol, which aims to curb the emission of the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.

The fact that Australia is in the grips of its worst drought in history was undoubtedly a major influence on voters, bringing into the here and now the harsh realities of climate change. But it’s important to see Howard’s loss in the context of a major shift in Australian politics. Howard was a popular leader who served as Prime Minister for 11 years and oversaw a period of strong economic growth. Displeasure over Australia’s continued support of the Iraq war and anger over the country’s refusal to address climate change ruled the day, leading to a landslide victory for the Labour Party, in which they won 86 of 150 seats in parliament.

Yesterday, in Bali, delegates from more than 180 countries began talks to try to develop a new international agreement that (hopefully) goes far beyond the Kyoto Protocol, signed 10 years ago. As study after study released in recent months show, climate change is happening far more rapidly than previously anticipated, putting pressure on governments from across the globe to broker an agreement that acts aggressively to face the challenge.

A new survey of recent tropical-climate studies released Sunday showed bands of semitropical arid regions that lie north and south of the equator are expanding into higher latitudes, bringing drier conditions to already water-strapped areas in the Mediterranean, the southwestern US, northern Mexico, and Australia.

In the report, scientists from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and two universities explain that the tropical-climate belt has widened by between 2 and 4.8 degrees of latitude between 1979 and 2005 – an expansion rate expected only later this century

Meanwhile, scientists have noted that since 2000, global carbon-dioxide emissions have grown at a pace higher than all but the highest projections that the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change uses for its global warming projections. While industrial nations historically have driven greenhouse-gas levels close to their current high concentrations, currently the highest growth rates are occurring in developing countries, with China and India leading the pack.

Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the body overseeing the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, cites International Energy Agency figures that indicate soaring demand for electricity – driven in large part by new electricity demands in the developing world – will require a $20 trillion investment in new power plants over the next 25 years. Each new plant would run for decades. Absent an international policy to reduce emissions outright or reduce their growth rate, “we will see global emissions go up by 50 percent, not down by 50 percent” by midcentury, he says…

Under the Kyoto Protocol, developed countries that signed on to the pact must trim their greenhouse-gas emissions by an average of at least 5 percent below 1990 levels. They have from 2008 to 2012 to accomplish this feat. But the latest set of reports from the UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicate that global greenhouse-gas emissions must peak around 2015, then fall 50 to 80 percent below 1990 levels by midcentury, if governments hope to keep global warming’s impact to a minimum…

With such a narrow window, rising emissions trends, and different approaches to ratifying agreements among countries, “it’s hard to see where you’re going to get the cuts that will be needed,” says Harlan Watson, the Bush administration’s senior climate negotiator.

Now, that’s true. This challenge is enormous… unprecedented… complex… but scientists, innovators, and policy experts have no shortage of ideas as to where we can make the cuts required. Groups like the Rocky Mountain Institute have made compelling arguments for decades about significant reductions that can be made with relative ease through energy efficiency measures. Blueprints for getting the 70%+ reductions in greenhouse gas emissions we require have been advanced by groups like Princeton’s Environmental Initiative. And even business strategists like McKinsey & Company make a case for significant reductions at low cost.

What’s missing is government leadership and international cooperation. That’s why the meeting in Bali is so important, and why elections like that in Australia and our own general election in November are immensely critical.

Throughout 2007, leaders, including President Bush have called for concerted international action, although differences remain on the best approach to deal with global warming. Indeed, last week Australians elected a new prime minister who has pledged to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, leaving the US as the only industrial country in the world to take a pass on the treaty.

Still, within the United States, efforts in Congress and among states to curb emissions have gathered significant momentum. And support for action has grown among leaders of major companies around the world. Last week, leaders of some 150 companies with a combined value of up to $4 trillion signed a petition asking governments to act quickly at Bali to curb greenhouse gases.

In the US, a compromise between leading Democrats last week paved the way for a bill that would require a 35-mile-per-gallon fuel efficiency standard by 2020. Meanwhile, state efforts to set up regional carbon-trading systems has expanded to the Midwest.

And if the timetable for a new global agreement gets stretched, “that wouldn’t prevent countries from continuing to move at the national level,” notes Elliot Diringer, director of international strategies at the Pew Center.

The Pew Center’s Claussen notes that virtually everyone agrees that the key to success lies in getting the US to agree to binding commitments to reduce emissions, as well as getting key developing countries, such as China and India, to curb emissions growth. China is trying to cut its economy’s greenhouse-gas intensity by 20 percent between 2005 and 2010, and next year will set its average fuel-economy standard to 37 miles per gallon. Brazil has pledged to cut its rate of deforestation by 50 percent.

This year “has been a very productive year; there’s a strong sense of momentum,” Claussen says. “Expectations are high.” But as talks begin here, she cautions, expectations may be too high.

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