The 60th Annual United Nations Nongovernmental Organization (NGO) Conference took place at the UN headquarters in New York in early September. The conference focused on climate change as one of the key issues facing the world.

Over 1,700 delegates from 62 countries, from all continents except Antarctica, representing over 500 NGOs, spent three days listening to top scientists, UN officials and NGO activists discuss, debate and wrestle with the many problems climate change is already causing, and additional problems headed our way in the future.

Scientists are talking now about “climate change” instead of global warming because, while the main trend is an accelerating increase in average world temperature, the effects are uneven and contradictory, with greater temperature increases at the North and South Poles, colder winters in other places, changes in weather systems resulting in more rainfall in some areas and more drought in others, more floods and more desertification, and more extreme weather events of all kinds. While all this is linked to global warming, warming is not the only thing happening.

Effects already evident

The world already experiences effects from human-caused climate change — more intense storms and hurricanes, more floods, accelerating desertification, and glacial melting. Several summers ago, Europe faced the hottest summer ever recorded there, and more than 30,000 people died early deaths as a result.

Ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland are receding faster than anyone predicted. Ice in the Arctic is melting rapidly (two weeks ago, an area of ice as big as Florida disappeared), and the fabled “Northern Passage” that European explorers searched for will be a reality within a few years.

We face increased dangers to humanity from climate change caused by greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, including threats to our water and food supplies.

As glaciers and ice sheets melt, the sea level will rise — though no one knows for certain exactly how much and how fast; predictions range from several inches to many feet. The glaciers in the Himalayas are projected to disappear by 2035, and 1.2 billion people depend on the rivers those glaciers feed for their water supplies — for drinking, for sanitation and for growing food.

Rising ocean temperature threatens the monsoon cycles in Asia which provide water for crops, and also may shut down the Gulf Stream, threatening northern Europe with much colder winters and shorter growing seasons.

There is a great deal of scientific uncertainty — though not of the kind often reported in the U.S. media. The only uncertainty is whether we may actually face much more severe consequences.

The social issues are also complex. Most of the greenhouse gases causing the problem have resulted from industrial development and energy use in the major industrialized economies, but among the first and worst impacts will be on the least developed countries. Also, the rich in every country will use their wealth and power to avoid the consequences, though they profited most from the industrial development in the first place.

We have to understand that there is already too much accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, produced by industrial activity and carbon burning, to “stop” global warming. There are only three ways for humanity to react — mitigation (slowing or stopping more carbon dioxide emissions from industry, transportation and other energy uses), adaptation (adjusting industry, agriculture and other features of human life to the coming changes) and suffering. Humanity will do all three; the only question is, in what proportions. The more mitigation and adaptation, the less suffering. But action is required right now, before the problems get worse, before the costs of mitigation and adaptation get even higher and before the suffering increases.

What to do?

What can be done? Many changes are required — changes in personal lifestyle and consumption, changes in industrial and agricultural processes, changes to address the inequity in impacts around the world and changes in the political process, especially in the United States.

No one change will be enough by itself. We need to engage in all of them. Recycling, eating less meat and driving less will help, but the major changes we need are not just individual ones. One questioner at a conference panel presentation noted that people whose homes have central heating can’t just “turn down the thermostat,” and that it is pointless to agitate for people who can’t afford them to buy hybrid vehicles. People need to make personal and individual changes, she said, but economic, industrial and agricultural systems have to be changed to make a basic difference. Major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions include coal-fired electricity-generating plants; truck, ship and airline transportation; the use of petrochemicals for everything from fertilizer to packaging; and many other changes beyond the choice of individuals.

Global climate change is a working-class issue, and an issue of justice and equality within societies and across borders. Workers and poor people around the globe, and here at home, face increased suffering the longer it takes for major changes to be accomplished.

Unions, community organizations, nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations are realizing that they need to take action, if only to keep the wealthy and major corporations from evading their responsibilities and burdening workers with all the costs and impacts of change.

The Bush administration’s denial of human-caused climate change and ignoring of scientific fact are increasingly at odds with easily observable reality. These issues and problems will play an increasing role in politics and elections in the U.S., including in the 2008 presidential election campaign. Public opinion has already shifted, and that is forcing candidates to address climate change. Some (mainly the Republicans) continue to deny or minimize the problems and the costs we are already paying. Others want to place the greatest burden on individuals. Only a few point out the real problems and real causes.

Call to action

The final call from the NGO conference strongly recommends (among other actions) that:

“a. all governments and civil society foster an ethical, moral foundation for ongoing sustainable development in our interdependent world, making the well-being of all of humankind our priority,

b. all educational institutions and media organizations more effectively educate about the issue of climate change with special emphasis on youth,

c. governmental authorities consider penalties for excessive consumption and pollution as a method of financing climate change improvements, as well as financial incentives to foster climate-friendly technologies so that fossil fuel and nuclear-based technologies can be phased out,

d. governments recognize that war is damaging to the climate,

e. all governments ratify UN conventions on climate change, the Kyoto protocol and other relevant climate conventions.”

This UN NGO conference was but one part of the global efforts — there will be more UN conferences including one in Bali in December, and other ongoing international negotiations. Missing at the table will be the direct voices of workers, farmers, poor people and children. It is part of our job to make those voices heard, and to demand immediate action before the costs of change rise even further.

Individual responsibility includes engaging in political action to force the political system to pass laws and tax the corporations to pay for the required changes. Struggles in the public sphere will determine how much global warming there will be, who pays the price of change and whether the industrial, agricultural and social transformations humanity needs actually happen.

Marc Brodine (marcbrodine attended the UN NGO Climate Change Conference, Sept. 5-7, in New York. Brodine is chair of the Washington State Communist Party and co-authored the second edition of the CPUSA environmental program, “People and Nature Before Profits.”