Brief Note About a ‘Slow Onset Disaster’

Jean-Pierre Pieuchot/Getty Images

with a good Jeopardy answer, plus a minor footnote

Nature's Edge Notebook: Durban Diary

"Slow Onset Disaster" is a phrase that's been used for decades by specialists in the United Nations system who help people prepare for and deal with … slow onset disasters.

For example, drought.

There is often enough warning time for groups like the U.N.'s ISDR office (for International Strategy for Disaster Reduction) to prepare people to lessen the suffering, financial loss and natural destruction that can be reasonably predicted as the ancient and familiar patterns of drought begin to set in.

Man made global warming is the mother of slow onset disasters.

Only it's now beginning to speed up.

And it didn't come with an instruction manual.

The recent increase of extreme weather around the world - and, ominously, in both hemispheres at once - fits the patterns predicted 40 years ago by the world's scientists for increased frequency of such events, and in some cases (such as heavy downpours and snowfall) increased severity.

Man made global warming and ocean acidification began slowly in the 1800's as the burning of coal spurred an industrial revolution, pouring more and more invisible heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) up through chimneys into the atmosphere where much of it hangs around for 50 years and longer.

What distinguishes global warming from other slow onset disasters is that there's hardly a realm of human activity that it does not affect - in citird and villages, banks and businesses, schools and living rooms, embassies and movie theaters.

The entire UN system is trying to help deal with these effects in many ways. Today it gave a glimpse of how.

The world is generally aware of negotiations like those here at the annual global climate summit wrestling over how to set a price for the world on carbon emissions … and how to get the rich nations, who put most of the CO2 in the air, to chip in and help poor countries, who put little CO2 in the air, adjust to the unwanted changes now advancing fast upon them.

Less well known is the network of 29 organizations that make up "The UN System Chief Executives Board for Coordination" - the CEB.

They are working together in an effort to help countries deal with the climate problem.

They include a few familiar acronyms like UNICEF (the United Nations Children's Fund) and the WHO (the World Health Organization) … but some are less familiar to the public:  WFP (World Food Programme), UPU (Universal Postal Union - helps coordinate postal rates between countries) and IMO (International Maritime Organization - see below.)

In front of a large room here packed with hundreds of people from around the world, a panel of leaders in the CEB described how they were working to coordinate matters as diverse as;

- more accurate prediction of regional weather effects of global warming.

- taking advantage of new cheap solar panels (the Chinese are credited with having helped prices drop 30 percent in the past few years)

- global mapping to identify regional renewable energy advantages such as areas with high wind

- identifying those areas facing the greatest needs soonest, such as some small island nations already being inundated by sea level rise.

-coordinating international financial aid to help poor countries adapt to the rising heat and many others.

Since this problem affects most aspects of life, most of the UN system's organizations find a role to play, sometimes in ways you might not expect.

For example, despite the fact that the US Congress, influenced by fossil fuel lobbies, has disappointed leaders around the world by voting down any limit on greenhouse emissions, America's membership in a little remarked international treaty can require ships sailing under an American Flag to cut their emissions - and can enforce compliance.

Shipping accounts for nearly 3 percent of the world's greenhouse emissions.

Here's a good Jeopardy answer for you: What is the IMO?

The International Maritime Union, one of the 29 members of the CEB,  is led by its Secretary General, Mr. Efthimios Mitropoulos.

After today's CEB panel, he explained to ABC News how the International Convention on Marine Pollution has an "Annex 6? which covers air pollution over the seas… and that new regulations under Annex 6 go into force in 2013.

They will include requirements such as asking ships to reduce their speed by 10 percent - which reduces a ship's greenhouse emissions by 30 percent.

The slow onset disaster of global warming is "a problem from hell" partly because, as it starts to speed up, it has so many parts in so many places all over the planet. It's "a story too big to cover" - almost.

Many leaders here are openly expressing frustration with how slowly the major polluting nations are moving toward any kind of binding agreement on emissions cuts.

But in such examples as the new IMO speed regulations, there are also signs of acceleration of what has been till now a slow onset solution.

It presents the prospect of a 30 percent cut in the greenhouse gas emissions of the world's ships within two years - including American ships, irrespective of a recalcitrant Congress.

Oh, and the minor footnote promised in the sub-headline? I won't use names. Nor waste much time on it. It's an old and tired story.

A tiny handful of people who have for several years been getting publicity for themselves and their sponsors by claiming to debunk the gravity of the global warming crisis described by the world's climate scientists showed up at this convention center and held a press conference.

Few attended - perhaps 20. This reporter knows of no serious professional journalists who take the claims of these people seriously or waste time with them anymore.

We rarely even name them or their groups.

The greatly respected professional journalist Ross Gelbspan, who directed Pulitzer Prize winning news teams when he was an editor at the Boston Globe, pointed out some years ago that these folks "don't need or even expect to win any debates, they just want to be seen to be having them" - and since their arguments have long since come up without substance or probity, few spend much time responding to them.

That does not, however, seem to be true in the US Congress.

A "Media Advisory"  from Capital Hill, posted on the internet and read here this morning said that "Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, will hold a press conference to discuss climate change and the need for international cooperation.  She will also address claims made by climate change deniers."

Delegates from around the world here at the Durban climate conference seem to pay the deniers virtually no attention at all.

They're grappling with a real disaster.