The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Scientists Announce Trove of Fragile New Species in Mekong

by Christopher Shay

Right now, bird-eating frogs with fangs wait for their prey in the streams of eastern Thailand. Technicolor geckos scurry up trees on the Thai-Malaysian border, and ruby-red fish — previously only found in the Ukrainian ornamental fish trade — are swimming in the rivers of Burma. These are three of the 163 species discovered by various researchers in the Greater Mekong region of Southeast Asia last year, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) announced on Sept. 25.

But conservationists warn that these and other rare species around the world may not be around for long if nothing is done to stop global climate change. The Mekong region — Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and China’s Yunnan province — is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Rising seawaters will damage coastal areas; more powerful storms will pummel the region, and warming temperatures will transform ecosystems, the WWF says. A recent Vietnamese study estimated that if its coastal water level rises about 2.5 ft. — a not unreasonable prospect, particularly during the region’s periodic storm surges — nearly one fifth of the delta in Vietnam would be submerged. With endangered species already living in shrinking areas — as little as 5% of the region’s natural habitat remains — animals like the musk shrew and the Nonggang babbler would have nowhere to go. “The treasures of nature are in trouble if governments fail to agree a fair, ambitious and binding treaty that will prevent runaway climate change,” said Kathrin Gutmann in a press release, the head of policy and advocacy at the WWF Global Climate Initiative.

It was not an accident that the WWF released its report three days before the world’s top climate change negotiators met in Bangkok today to iron out drafts of a global climate agreement to be debated in Copenhagen this December. Ten of the remaining 15 days of negotiation before the make-or-break Copenhagen summit are in Thailand, and gridlock there could derail any chance that an enforceable, global climate change agreement gets implemented anytime soon. The executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Yvo de Boer said he expects serious progress to be made during the Bangkok meetings and promised to be ready for Copenhagen: “There will be a draft ready, no doubt about it.”

While the one-day climate change summit at the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 22 in New York had some encouraging moments, it remains to be seen whether the solidarity expressed by U.S. President Barack Obama, Chinese President Hu Jintao and other leaders will trickle down to the delegates from 180 countries. The delegates’ previous meeting in Bonn, Germany ended with a 200-page document with over 2,000 bracketed statements, indicating areas of disagreement. Still, de Boer is confident that last week’s General Assembly meeting made it clear that countries are dedicated to making a Copenhagen agreement happen. “Leaders are telling their negotiators they should get off their backsides and get it done,” de Boer said.

But others fear that an enforceable climate agreement is still a long ways off, due in no small part to the enduring differences between developed and developing countries. Wealthy countries have long wanted global emissions curbs for emerging — and growing — economies. In 1997, the U.S. Senate voted 96-0 against the Kyoto Protocol because it did not cap emissions for India and China. And while India, China and developing countries in the greater Mekong region and elsewhere have expressed a willingness to help, they also say they need financial support from wealthier countries like the U.S., still the world’s biggest emitter of green house gases if given responsibility for the energy used to make imported goods, and that emissions caps at home could slow their economic growth. “When it comes to the negotiations, they are in fact slowing down; they are not going in the right direction,” Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt told reporters at the G20. Aree Wattana Tummakird, the director of Thailand’s Office of Climate Change Coordination, hopes the industrialized countries would help poorer countries deal with the impacts of climate change, but is worried that the differences were still too much to overcome. “We need the developed countries to fulfill their commitment,” she says. “We will try to achieve significant progress, but I’m not sure we can have a good outcome.”

That would be bad news for a newly discovered tiger-striped pit viper, which scientists expect only live on one small island off the coast of Vietnam, or the Cat Ba leopard gecko whose extraordinary colors and large, cat-like eyes suggest Roswell rather than northern Vietnam. Southeast Asia accounts for only 12% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but according to the Asia Development Bank, with its long coastlines and low-lying areas, it’s the world’s most vulnerable region to climate change. If scientists are to keep discovering strange new species in the region — and they say there are many more left to find — negotiators need to come together. Protecting both the rare species and at-risk populations in the Greater Mekong and elsewhere depends on the U.N. talks in Bangkok to smooth the way for a December agreement in Copenhagen.

Published on on Monday, Sep. 28, 2009

Category: Article, Environment

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