This month's UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen comes amid growing scientific consensus that global temperatures are rising, and that the warming trend is having a measurable impact on life on the planet. According to a 2007 UN intergovernmental panel report on climate change, 11 of the previous 12 years were the warmest on record. Although disagreements persist on the extent to which human activity is responsible for climate change, the Earth's warming no longer appears in doubt, and the long-term consequences look increasingly grim.
Searing droughts. Epic floods. Devastating hurricanes and typhoons. Retreating glaciers. Melting polar ice caps. These are just some of the occurrences scientists say are becoming more common and intense, or accelerating with alarming speed.
In Kenya, the lack of rain this year, decimated livestock and crops. "The drought has become unbearable," a farmer said. "There is no food, we have no water. It is like we have no tomorrow."
Elsewhere, too much water. Torrential rains in Brazil late last year left dozens dead and thousands homeless. "My parents have been living here for 58 years, and never saw rain like this," flood victim Osnir Starke stated.
Even in regions long-accustomed to violent weather, such as the Philippines, the frequency and severity of massive storms is on the rise. Earlier this year, a series of cyclones devastated much of Bangladesh. "It will become impossible to live in this land, if cyclones keep battering us like this, one after the other. We are poor people, and after this third cyclone, we have nothing left," cyclone victim Tajul Islam.
Are these disasters freak occurrences, or part of a pattern foreshadowing a bleak future for man and animals? No one can say for sure, but some indicators are plain to see. From Alaska to Switzerland to Argentina, glaciers that predate humanity are in rapid retreat. At both of the Earth's poles, ice is melting at what scientists say is an alarming rate, endangering numerous species. Over time, rising sea levels are projected to redraw the boundaries of Earth's terrain, placing atolls and vast stretches of low-lying countries under water.
Debate continues as to whether human activity alone accounts for climate change, but most scientists list carbon emissions from fossil fuels as a major contributor. Whatever the causes, experts say, the costs of a warming planet will be high -- particularly for the world's poorest and most vulnerable.
"According to our estimation, 75 percent to 80 percent of the estimated damage will be borne by developing countries," World Bank Chief Economist Justin Lin said. "For the developing country, climate change is something they cannot ignore."
For years, people around the world have heard increasingly stark warnings from the scientific community about climate change, punctuated by a growing body of anecdotal evidence pointing to a warming planet and worrisome examples of the tragic consequences it could bring. But the warnings and recent events have yet to spark a coordinated, worldwide effort to confront climate change, according to former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his subsequent efforts to raise awareness about global warming.
"It is up to us to heed those warnings, to react to those warnings, and to take appropriate steps in order to prevent that damage," Mr. Gore said. "We have everything we need to act, except perhaps the political will."
That political will is sure to be put to the test in Copenhagen.