With 2004 set to become the costliest natural catastrophe year ever for the insurance industry, a United Nations climate convention opened its 10th anniversary high-level meeting today with warnings that much more needs to be done to avert a veritable biblical list of plagues arising from global warming caused by human action.
Figures released at the 10th Session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, showed that for the first 10 months of this year hurricanes, typhoons and other weather-related natural disasters cost the insurance industry just over $35 billion, up from $16 billion in 2003.
Economic losses, the majority of which were not insured, will also have cost the planet and its people dearly, with preliminary figures for January to October putting them among the highest on record - so far totalling about $90 billion, up from over $65 billion in 2003. The average annual loss over of the last 10 years has been $70 billion.
"Worrying signals continue to reach us about the impacts and risks of climate change," Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the meeting in a message delivered by UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Klaus Toepfer. "The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has already showed us that the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events may increase," he added.
"As we mark the 10th anniversary of the Convention's entry into force, we can say with a sense of achievement that our 'child,' so to speak, is growing up. But much more needs to be done as it comes of age, so that we can feel confident that the problem is being adequately addressed."
UNFCCC Executive Secretary Joke Waller-Hunter noted that the past 10 years had seen a strengthening of the science on climate change not least through the IPCC efforts. "We increasingly witness the possible impacts of climate change identified by the IPCC: droughts, floods, hurricanes and the melting of icecaps and glaciers in various regions of the globe," she added.
"We can look back with some pride," she declared, giving "a rather positive balance sheet" of actions taken by intergovernmental, national and private sector bodies, especially with the Kyoto Protocol against global warming. "But can we look forward with hope? Despite our efforts, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere keep on rising, at an ever-increasing pace.
"Ten years of action on a problem with a time horizon of decades, if not centuries, can only be a first step. Planning the next steps is in order, if we want investment decisions to respond to the challenges posed by the ultimate objective of the Convention."
Mr. Annan also referred to the Kyoto Protocol, saying that "much attention is now justifiably turned" toward the entry into force in February 2005 of the pact, under which industrialized countries are to reduce their combined emissions of six major so-called greenhouse gases during the five-year period from 2008 to 2012 to below-1990 levels.
But, he added, "I urge you also to look ahead, beyond the Protocol, which takes us only to the year 2012. The longer-term challenge is to promote the use of low-carbon energy sources, low-greenhouse-gas technologies and renewable energy sources. In developed and developing countries alike, we need development strategies that are more climate-friendly."
The Kyoto Protocol becomes legally binding on its 128 parties on 16 February following Russia's ratification last month, but the United States, which produces more global warming emissions than any other country, is not a party since President George W. Bush withdrew support for it in 2001.
Among the hardest-hit countries in 2004 have been many small, developing countries, with the hurricane-ravaged islands of Grenada and Grand Cayman in the Caribbean underlining the impact on fragile economies.
Mr. Toepfer noted that in many developing countries, the impact of high winds and torrential rains is aggravated by a variety of factors ranging from the clearing of forests making land slides more likely to a lack of enforcement of building codes.
"Reducing vulnerability and helping poorer nations cope with the ravages of climate change is vital," he said.