[Viewpoint] Duty-bound on climate issues

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[Viewpoint] Duty-bound on climate issues

History remembers the champions and rarely has time for the losers. Failed expeditions seldom get mentioned. But there are exceptions where valiant and epic failures can eclipse any success story.

Sir Ernest Shackleton and his failed attempt to reach the South Pole is such a case. He was among three of the most famous explorers in the early 20th century when men raced to reach the far ends of the earth. Shackleton’s team once held the record of coming closest to the pole, but had to turn back only 97 miles from the goal. And again in 1914, he embarked on an unprecedented transcontinental crossing of Antarctica but his ship got stuck and after hitting ice packs.

Yet he became a legend by keeping all 27 of his crew members alive during 15 harrowing months on frigid waters and islands. Even as they fought for life, his team fulfilled the explorer’s mission, capturing scenes of the uncharted Antarctic continent on camera and in diaries.

Photos of moving floes and ice packs, the ship Endurance embedded in ice, the majestic mercurial Weddell Sea, wondrous snow valleys and ice pinnacles showed nature’s boundless power.

The great explorer’s beloved destination has now become the biggest victim of human folly, a melting time bomb ticking away as a warmer earth pushes sea levels higher every day.

A pivotal international conference to tackle the issue of global warming under the auspices of the United Nations has opened in Copenhagen, Denmark. More than 100 countries will try to iron out differences and details to reach a new global climate deal during the two-week session. Three main themes will dominate the conference.

The first is the environment. The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research had already issued a strong warning on the apocalyptic dangers the planet faces due to the increase in global temperatures. If warming continues at its current rate, islands from the Indian to Pacific oceans will be underwater by 2100. Port cities like London, New York and Shanghai will have to pay billions of dollars to fight flooding. More than 600 million people, or 10 percent of the world’s population, will be homeless due to natural disasters.

The second theme is politics. Such an emergency calls for a more stringent global framework to combine forces to curb the warming process, replacing the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. But the outcome remains unclear with strong and complicated divisions among wealthy, developing and poorer countries.

But those in Copenhagen are fully aware that they must set limits on greenhouse gas emissions and provide financial commitments to provide climate-related projects to poorer countries.

Our government last month pledged to cut greenhouse emissions by 30 percent over “business as usual” levels by 2020. Korea’s commitment falls short, given it is the world’s ninth biggest polluter.

The government had to consider the economy’s dependency on industrial activities, but at the same time, it is under pressure to display greater leadership tantamount to the status of next year’s host country of the G-20 summit next November.

The third theme is humanity. Experts offer differing views on the climate’s future. Some claim the climate crisis has been overstated. But few can argue against clear signs of rising sea levels and climate disruptions that global warming is not an imperative issue. The problem is how we can cope with this crisis threatening to endanger us all.

We first need an entirely different attitude and mind-set toward nature and the environment. The environmental crisis will never go away if humans continue to regard nature as merely a source to be exploited. We must engage a new age of enlightenment, seeing nature and humanity as one and the same in order to sustain life on our planet.

As Shackelton left his sinking ship as lightly as possible for an unpredictable journey of survival on a small boat, he took with him his favorite Bible verse, from Job 38: “From whose womb comes the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens when the waters become hard as stone, when the surface of the deep is frozen?”

Wind ice, and sea are entitled to the earth as much as humans. Mankind must face up to its duty to help save the planet.

*The writer is a professor of sociology at Yonsei University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Ho-ki
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