From Lara Marlow - Irish Times Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Obama warns of 'irreversible catastrophe' for climate LARA MARLOWE in New York

WORLD LEADERS have attempted to inject a sense of urgency into negotiations for a global climate change agreement.

“We risk consigning future generations to an irreversible catastrophe,” President Barack Obama told 190 heads of state and government who convened at the United Nations on the eve of the opening of the General Assembly.

UN secretary general Ban Ki- moon said: “This is the largest-ever meeting of world leaders on climate change. Now is the moment to act. We will soon reach the critical threshold, the consequences of which cannot be reversed. We have less than 10 years to avoid the worst-case scenario . . . The Arctic will be nearly ice-free by late 2030.”

Yesterday’s summit was intended to increase the chances of reaching an agreement at the Copenhagen conference in December, to replace the Kyoto Protocol which expires in 2012. “There are only 15 negotiating days left until Copenhagen,” Mr Ban warned.

Meanwhile, the Chinese president Hu Jintao did not fulfil a UN official’s predictions that China would suddenly become a champion of the fight against global warming.

Mr Hu spoke in platitudes and stressed the need for developed countries to understand developing countries. China and India are often portrayed as the villains of the global warming crisis.

Dr Rajendra Pachauri, the scientist who chairs the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said the “warming of the climate system is unequivocal”. Due to melting ice and thermal expansion, sea levels rose 17cm in the 20th century, putting small ocean nations like the Maldives Islands “barely a metre or two above sea level”.

In what was perhaps the most powerful speech of the day, the young president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, warned the assembly: “Unless you act quickly and decisively, our homeland and others like it will disappear beneath the rising sea before the end of this century. We ask you: what will become of us?” Following the morning’s speeches, Taoiseach Brian Cowen said: “We have to find a way to stop global warming or else we put at risk the survival of this planet.

He made what one of his aides called “a very strong and passionate” unscheduled intervention in a closed-door round-table meeting, arguing that now was “a defining moment for the UN” and “the time for action”.

Mr Cowen told journalists that a tax on carbon fuels was “an issue for consideration in the context of the next budget”, adding that “a low carbon economy is a lot more than just about a carbon tax”.

Asked whether the Irish would have to pay out of their pockets to fight global warming, Mr Cowen said: “Yes, there will of course be impacts in the short term, but the cost of inactivity is far greater.”

The summit was imbued with a sense of gravity with Mr Obama, Mr Ban and Mr Cowen all saying its participants would be judged by history.

Mr Obama used the same arguments – the world’s best interest and urgency – in dealing with the other big event of the day: the first trilateral meeting of the US president with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

In his headquarters at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Mr Obama spent two hours with the Middle Eastern protagonists, first individually, then all three together. Senator George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, called the talks “direct and constructive” and said the “tone was positive and determined”.

Alluding to his role in the conclusion of the Belfast Agreement, Mr Mitchell said: “Based on past experience, I believe deeply that just as conflicts are created by human beings, they can be ended by human beings . . . We knew this wasn’t going to be easy.”