CANCUN, MEXICO -- Further delay in international action to slow warming would endanger vast numbers of lives in the world's poorest countries, but Cancun can still deliver decisive progress to help avert disaster, the head of the UN climate science panel said.
In an interview with SolveClimate News, Rajendra Pachauri said he "would think" that the Nov. 29 to Dec. 10 negotiations taking place in the Mexican resort would achieve at least some success toward a new climate pact.
"I have every reason to believe — given the compelling logic that science provides — that negotiators will see the need for moving ahead quickly with us," he said on the sidelines of the talks.
"We really need to take action."
But at the crucial midway point in the 194-nation meeting, a rich-poor divide still dogs negotiations, observers say, failing to dispel fears that talks could end in deadlock.
Countries on both sides of the battle have attacked a new 33-page text designed to break the logjam on key issues, including saving carbon-absorbing rainforests and transferring clean technologies.
Among concerns listed by wealthy states are the weak carbon-cutting commitments expected of emerging economies, like China and India. The poorest countries reject the draft document's goal to restrict global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, demanding that temperatures be held to a 1.5 degree rise.
Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa, president of the climate meeting, told negotiators on Sunday that compromise is still possible.
"One week into the process, the conditions are in place to reach a broad and balanced package of decisions that leads to an era of increasingly effective global action on climate change," she said.
"I believe we can complete the package, or at the very least to make significant advances, before the opening of the high-level segment on Tuesday afternoon."
Poorest to Suffer from Political Inaction
With raised voices and emotional appeals, several developing nations pleaded on Sunday for progress on the shape of a new treaty.
"How many conferences can we have without concrete action?" asked a negotiator from Colombia, whose country is currently enduring record floods that have killed some 175 people and destroyed or damaged hundreds of thousands of homes.
"We have to think of the tragedies caused by failing to curb emissions," she said to cheers and applause.
A 2007 report by Pachauri's Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that runaway emissions threaten to increase the frequency of flooding and droughts and reduce farm output in the poorest countries.
"In Africa, for instance, as early as 2020, we could have anywhere from 75 to 250 million people living under conditions of water stress," Pachauri said.
"These are societies that just don't have the income levels to be able to import food," he continued. "If they're not able to produce enough for themselves, then that clearly has a very harmful and negative impact."
Pachauri said warming is already making natural disasters worse. He pointed to the "terrible cyclone" in Myanmar in 2008 that killed more than 100,000 people as a harbinger of things to come on our planet.
"These tropical cyclones in that part of the world are growing in intensity and frequency, and we've highlighted that," Pachauri said. "Perhaps 100 years ago this may not have been a threat, but today it clearly is."
New data from the World Meteorological Organization shows that greenhouse gases have hit their highest levels since pre-industrial times. This year is "almost certain" to rank in the top three hottest years since temperature records began in 1850, the agency found.
Hopes that Updated Science Drowns Out Skeptics
The next IPCC report is due in 2013 and 2014. Pachauri said he "hopes" the updated science will strengthen the case for caps on heat-trapping gases in the face of increased activity from climate skeptics, especially in the U.S., who oppose carbon regulation on principle.
"Knowledge has moved on," he said. "We hope that we'd be able to provide much more information and a far more comprehensive assessment than was possible three years ago."
"What's critically important is to inform the public" about the "reality of the science," he said.
UN Photo/Logan Abassi