Rising levels of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere have warmed the Earth with wide-ranging impact. In his State of the Union speech earlier this week, President Obama said the debate over climate change was settled. “Climate change is a fact.” “The shift to a cleaner energy economy won’t happen overnight, and it will require tough choices along the way,” he said.

Last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged political, economic and financial leaders to intensify their efforts to move towards a low-carbon economy in preparation for the Climate Summit in September 2014 in New York. Climate change was a major focus of the annual Forum in Davos, which dedicated one entire day and more than 20 events to the topic of climate change and energy policy.

What is Climate Change?

Climate change refers to the effects resulting in the climate from global warming. Wallace Broecker, a geochemist, coined the phrase “global warming” in 1975. Global warming refers to the increase of the average global surface temperature caused by human greenhouse gas emissions. A greenhouse gas absorbs energy from the sun and re-emits it in all directions, including down to Earth. An increase in greenhouse gases results in the temperature of the Earth rising, which in turn, causes numerous changes in the Earth’s climate. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that occurs naturally and is also emitted by the burning of fossil fuels for energy.

The concern regarding climate change began in the 19th century, when scientific evidence first began to suggest that accumulated carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere could create a greenhouse effect and increase the temperature of the planet. By the middle of the 20th century, it was becoming clear that human action had significantly increased the production of carbon dioxide, and the process of global warming was accelerating. The level of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere presently is higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years.

Most of the hottest years on record have occurred during the past two decades. According to NASA scientists, 2013 tied with 2009 and 2006 as the seventh warmest year since 1880, continuing a long-term trend of rising global temperatures. With the exception of 1998, the 10 warmest years have all occurred since 2000. Today, most scientists agree that either we stop and reverse this process now or face a devastating cascade of natural disasters that will seriously alter life on Earth.

Consequences of Climate Change

Because so many systems are tied to climate, a change in climate can affect many related aspects of where and how people, plants and animals live, such as food production, and availability and use of water. The consequences of global warming include rising sea levels; extreme heat events, melting snow and ice; fires and drought; and extreme storms, rainfall and floods. In Europe, the heat wave in the summer of 2003 resulted in over 30,000 deaths.  In India, temperatures reached 48.1 degrees Centigrade, which is nearly 119 degrees Fahrenheit. Two years later, the ferocity of Hurricane Katrina in the United States was attributed in large part to the elevated water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico. In 2008, in one of many topographic changing developments, 160 square miles of territory broke away from the Antarctic coast after its bindings to Antarctica had melted away.

According to a recent draft United Nations report, a delay in reducing the emission of carbon to the atmosphere would force future generations to develop the ability to somehow remove greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and store them underground to preserve the livability of the planet. The most evident problem is that it is still not clear whether such technologies will ever exist at the necessary scale, and even if they do, the cost of the reparations might be prohibitive. The new warnings came in a draft report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations panel of climate experts that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for its efforts to analyze and communicate the risks of climate change.

UN Initiatives on Climate Change

In 1992, the “Earth Summit” produced the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as a first step in tackling the problem of climate change. The Convention’s 1997 Kyoto Protocol, set carbon emission reduction targets for industrialized countries, and helped stabilize and in some cases reduce, emissions in several countries.

In 1998, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to provide an objective source of scientific information and to study the issue of climate change in depth. In December 2010, climate change talks in Cancún concluded with a package of decisions to help countries advance towards a low-emissions future. The “Cancún Agreements,” include formalizing mitigation pledges and ensuring increased accountability for them, as well as taking concrete action to protect the world’s forests.

In 2011 the UN Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa, produced the Durban Platform. In Durban, governments decided to adopt a universal legal agreement on climate change as soon as possible, but not later than 2015. In December 2012, after two weeks of negotiations at the Doha conference, nations agreed to a new commitment period for the Kyoto protocol and affirmed a previous decision to adopt a new global climate pact by 2015.

The recent draft UN report states that the situation has grown critical and the risk of severe economic disruption is increasing. It predicts that another 15 years of failure to limit carbon emissions could make the problem virtually impossible to solve with current technologies, and states that governments of the world are still spending far more money to subsidize fossil fuels than to accelerate the shift to cleaner energy, thus encouraging continued investment in projects like coal-burning power plants that pose a long-term climate risk.

Political Response by Individual Nations to Climate Change

Political willingness to tackle climate change is growing in many countries and new policies are spreading, however, currently there is still a considerably larger growth in the production of fossil fuels. Emissions appear to have fallen in recent years in some of the wealthiest countries but the growth of international trade allows manufacturers to produce abroad goods that are consumed in wealthy countries. These countries outsource their greenhouse gas emissions to countries like China.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which was meant to have nations commit to limit emissions, has not been as successful as intended because some important countries like the United States refused to ratify it or later withdrew, and also because of flaws within the treaty itself, such as the fact that the treaty exempted developing countries from taking strong action, a decision that many experts think was a mistake.

Nations have agreed to try to limit the warming of the planet to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels. This target is not ideal, an according to experts, would still mean future ecological and economic damage, but the hope is that it would come on slowly enough to be somewhat manageable. What is clear is that the risk of doing nothing with regards to climate change will risk serious disruption to all living things on Earth and will cause catastrophic events to occur that will pose significant risks to human health, agriculture, freshwater supplies, coastlines, and other natural resources that are vital to the economy, the environment, and our quality of life. What is not clear at all is how to reach a solution that avoids further endangering the Earth.

How can we address the issue of Global Warming?

Is it necessary to implement more strict policies on nations regarding carbon emissions?

Is the UN effective in addressing the concerns about climate change?

Should the United States and China, as the nations that produce the largest amount of carbon emissions, be required by the international community to formulate a plan to reduce their emissions?

In a recent session on climate, growth and development, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stressed that progress on addressing climate change will involve not just governments but also the full engagement of the business and finance communities. Do businesses have a social responsibility to help in the reduction of carbon emissions and prevent the future dangers that climate change pose to society?



Crimes Against the Environment: Who Pays?

On November 2011, about 155,000 gallons of crude oil leaked from the seabed near a Chevron well off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, with damages for the spill reaching over $20 billion. Criminal charges as well as a civil action were filed last year against Chevron Corp., driller Transocean Ltd. and several of their executives. A Brazilian federal court dismissed all criminal charges last week.

The two companies and 17 of their executives had been charged with “crimes against the environment” and faced up to 31 years in prison if convicted. After the dismissal of the criminal charges they still face civil penalties. According to a spokesman for the federal prosecutor’s office, “both sides are seeking an agreement regarding the amount to be paid.” At this time, they are offering to pay about $160 million.

Environmental crime covers acts that breach environmental legislation and cause significant harm or risk to the environment and human health. These crimes result from the “knowing” breach of environmental law. Knowing violations are those that are deliberate and not the product of accident or mistake. The most known areas of environmental crime are the illegal emission or discharge of substances into air, water or soil, the illegal trade in wildlife, illegal trade in ozone-depleting substances and the illegal shipment or dumping of waste.

Examples of contemporary environmental crimes include the 2010 toxic leak in Hungary, where a state of emergency was declared in three western countries after the chemical waste burst from a reservoir at an alumina plant. At least seven villages and towns were affected including Devecser, where the torrent was over 6.5 feet deep. The flood swept cars from roads and damaged bridges and houses, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of residents.

In 2006, the Ivory Coast toxic waste dump was a health crisis when a ship registered in Panama, the ‘Probo Koala’, chartered by the Swiss-based oil and commodity shipping company Trafigura Beheer BV, offloaded toxic waste at the Ivorian port of Abidjan. The waste was then dumped by a local contractor at as many as 12 sites in and around the city of Abidjan. The gas caused by the release of these chemicals caused the death of 22 and the injury of over 30,000 Ivorians with injuries that ranged from mild headaches to severe burns of skin and lungs.

Environmental crimes cause significant damage to the environment and, given their cross border aspect, their effect concern us all. At the same time, they provide for very high profits for perpetrators and a relatively low risk of detection. In the early days of environmental legislation, violations carried largely insignificant civil fines and penalties. Newer laws address the willfulness of individuals who might be financially motivated to breach environmental laws and carry criminal penalties.

However, it is rare to hear of company executives going to prison for breach of environmental laws. Frequently, as in the case of the Rio de Janeiro spill, corporations are able to protect those responsible for the harm by paying what usually constitutes a small part of the damage caused by their actions. Since environmental laws are still based on national legislation, state sovereignty allows for financial settlements that avoid criminal penalties. Thus, companies often perform a cost benefit analysis of the savings resulting from the breach of environmental laws, versus what they will have to pay should they be prosecuted for the breach. Forum shopping as to what countries are more lenient regarding environmental crimes is also a reality.

The primary goals of criminal enforcement of environmental laws must be to maximize compliance and reduce threats to public health and the environment. Given that environmental breaches affect us all, perhaps it is necessary to have common standards for environmental violations at the international level as well as more effective enforcement. Perhaps prison for those who by their recklessness cause severe environmental damages should be a real option.