September marks the end of summer and ushers in a time of reflection. The working world returns from summer vacations and begins functioning on a heightened level, as the end of the year draws near. Problems that have been simmering are brought to the fore, and the financial world, of which the insurance industry is a large part, begins to seriously seek solutions.
No problem is as complex, nor as potentially catastrophic for the industry, as the rising temperatures in the world’s oceans and atmosphere. As if that weren’t enough, the industry also has to face the ongoing threats posed by global terrorism and the potentially serious credit crunch in global financial markets engendered by the subprime mortgage crisis in the U.S. (See following articles).
No subject has been more hotly debated than climate change. For some it is the end of the world as we know it, for others it is a chimera dreamed up by scientists, eager for research funds, and tree hugging liberals eager to trash the establishment. One fact has been established beyond doubt. The world is getting warmer. On September 17 the Arctic ice pack reached its lowest level since measurements have been taken. Glaciers are melting and the world’s weather patterns are changing.
Why this is happening remains a much-debated subject. Are greenhouse gasses (mainly CO2 produced by power plants and cars) a primary cause? Or are they arguably a negligible factor? That question remains unanswered, and given the complexity of the world’s weather, it may remain so for a long time.
However, an effort begins at the UN headquarters in New York today, that seeks to at least make world leaders aware of the role greenhouse gasses play in warming the earth and the necessity to address the probllem.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has convened a conference that will “seek to advance the global agenda on climate change.” The heads of state and other top officials from more than 150 countries will gather to make an attempt at “securing apolitical commitment and building momentum for the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali, Dec. 3 to 14, where negotiations about a new international climate agreement should start,” said a bulletin on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
web site at: http://unfccc.int.
“Bali must advance a negotiating agenda to combat climate change on all fronts, including adaptation, mitigation, clean technologies, deforestation and resource mobilization,” Secretary Ban stated. “Bali must be the political response to the recent scientific reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. All countries must do what they can to reach agreement by 2009, and to have it in force by the expiry of the current Kyoto Protocol commitment period in 2012.”
Ban has made addressing climate change a top UN priority. More than 70 heads of state are expected to attend the one-day event, the largest number of leaders ever to gather at a climate change conference. President Bush is scheduled to attend the dinner, following the meeting, but not the conference itself.
The presence of so many leaders underscores the importance they have given to examining what’s going on. Whether one indicts or exempts greenhouse gas emissions as a primary cause of global warming, no one should argue that the phenomenon can just be ignored. Reliable information is after all the beginning of the process of finding a solution to any problem.
New information on the shrinking Arctic ice pack has driven the point home forcefully. First the European Space Agency (http://www.esa.int) released findings that the “area covered by sea ice in the Arctic has shrunk to its lowest level this week [Sept.10-14] since satellite measurements began nearly 30 years ago, opening up the Northwest Passage – a long-sought short cut between Europe and Asia that has been historically impassable” (See IJ web site Sept. 17).
Last week the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (http://nsidc.org) released a similar study, covering the extent of the Arctic ice cap over the last several months, including the “record-breaking daily rates of sea ice loss in June and July.”
The NSDIC report stated: The extent of sea ice “now stands at 4.18 million square kilometers (1.61 million square miles). This represents an increase of 50,000 square kilometers (19,000 square miles) compared to the value of 4.13 million square kilometers (1.59 million square miles) five-day running mean extent, observed on September 16, which appears to be the 2007 minimum.” The increase reflects the end of the Arctic summer and the onset of winter.
However, the NSDIC also noted: “The minimum for 2007 shatters the previous five-day minimum set on September 20-21, 2005, by 1.19 million square kilometers (460,000 square miles), roughly the size of Texas and California combined, or nearly five United Kingdoms.”
The organization also commented: “Because oceans are so dark compared to sea ice, the immense open water areas north of Siberia absorbed a great deal of the sun’s energy through summer, hence heating the upper ocean. As the sun begins to set in autumn, this heat stored in the ocean starts to be released back to the atmosphere, which increases air temperatures.
“Hence, the anomalous lack of sea ice is itself partly responsible for the unusually high temperatures. We expect this effect to become more prominent in the coming weeks as the ocean releases more heat.”
The report also gave a nod of approval to recent climate models, indicating that they have “long told us that as greenhouse warming takes hold, rises in surface temperature over the Arctic Ocean will be especially large compared the rest of the Northern Hemisphere. A key part of this so-called ‘arctic amplification’ is the growing impact through time of the very process just described. Namely, with increasingly less sea ice at the end of summer as the years pass, the heat transfer from the ocean to the atmosphere in autumn also grows.”
The rapidly diminishing Arctic Ice pack will be a major subject for discussion at the UN conference, but it will not be the only one.
Sources: UN Framework Convention on Climate Change; European Space Agency; National Snow and Ice Data Center.
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