The most bracing piece of scientific news lately was clearly the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) starkly titled “Global Warming of 1.5oC”. (link)
The report is not news to anybody; not to scientists, not to those who read the news, and not to politicians. Although, they may profess other wise. Most of the points seem obvious. For instance, it raises the issue of significant impacts on national and social development initiatives, a statement that seems to be unnecessarily calling a spade a spade. Yet it needs to be said.
The most striking aspect of this report is the tone. It is almost absurdly alarmist for a scientific publication. The dry dense prose of science writing is largely dispensed with and in place is direct, point by point statements of cause and action. The report was subtitled with the following:
“An IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty”
In that sub-title there is enough to tell the reader that this is a loud and stern clarion call to action; what is happening, what causes it, what will happen, and what needs to be done. Period.
The report was compiled by over 90 scientists of varying climate related specialisations and they summarise the data from over 6000 peer reviewed published scientific papers. So, this report means business. Yet…….
Although the report is being currently being discussed (October 2018) in every major science publication and many mainstream magazines and newspapers, it was a headline in the satirical online magazine The Onion that illustrates the problem of the report with sobering clarity:
“‘Can anybody hear me?’, shout terrified climate scientists frantically waving arms as passers by walk straight through them”
The report delivers its points as if driven with hammers. They include (you can pass by these points if they bore you, but I urge you not too):
- Human activities are estimated to have caused a global temperature rise of 1oC since the advent of the industrial revolution. So, we are already two thirds of the way there to a 1.5oC rise from levels before we created industry.
- Anthropogenic induced global warming is increasing the global mean surface temperature at an estimated rate of between 0.1 and 0.3oC per decade. This is estimated taking past and current emissions into account.
- Analysis of climatic and weather trends have detected an increase in both intensity and frequency of extreme events since 1950, during which a mean global temperature increase of about 0.5oC occurred
- An increase in global mean temperature by 1.5 to 2oC from pre-industrial levels will increase hot extreme weather events in most inhabited regions in the planet, heavy rainfall events in several regions, and a probability of drought and precipitation (rain) deficits other regions.
- On sea level rises, model-based projections indicate a rise of between 0.26 and 0.77m by 2100 for a mean global temperature rise of 1.5o For temperature rises of 2oC by 2100 they estimate that sea levels will rise approximately 0.1m higher.
- Limiting global warming to 1.5oc is predicted to reduce increases in oceanic temperatures, reduce ocean acidification, limit risks to marine ecosystems, fisheries and marine biodiversity. In other words, if we can keep within the 1.5oC limit we can limit the damage.
- Climate related risks to human and animal health, livelihoods, food and water security, human security (referring to increased likelihood of conflict and war) are predicted to increase with a global temperature rise 1.5o A rise of 2oC is projected to increase the risks further.
Above are the main points in the first part of the report. Note that the principle trust of the narrative assumes that a global mean rise of 1.5oC by 2100 is inevitable. What the report stresses is the need to keep within that limit. Even a further rise of 0.5oC will result in catastrophic climate events, and such a rise is not by any means unrealistic.
In fact, it is far worse than that. What this report and others are saying is that a 1.5oC rise is the best case scenario. According to another previous IPPC report, at current levels of CO2 emissions and with no ameliorative actions, we are heading for possibly a 4oC temperature rise by 2100 (link). A rise by that level could cause the release of vast volumes of methane from permafrost deposits. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas, and release on a large scale could cause a cataclysmic runaway feedback loop of global warming (link). This happened before, notably playing roles in the Permian-Triassic extinction 225 million years ago (link) and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum event about 55 million years ago (link). During those events global temperature rises were between 5 and 11oC resulting in mass extinctions; 97% of all life and a 5 million year long dead zone for the former. These are worse-case scenario admittedly, and a 4oC rise may “only” result in worldwide droughts and floods and collapse of food security and mass migration (link). So we’re fine. However, we are adding CO2 to the atmosphere are a faster rate than 225 and 55 million years ago.
So what do we do? Following are the main points:
- To limit warming to a rate of 1.5oC alone requires far reaching transitions in how we produce energy, utilise land, design and build all human infrastructures, and how we design and utilise industrial systems.
- To limit warming to a 1.5oC rise by 2100 significant large-scale carbon dioxide removal and carbon capture and storage measures must be deployed. However, the feasibility of such undertaking is addressed, and the report states that “Existing and potential CDR measures include afforestation and reforestation, land restoration and soil carbon sequestration, BECCS, direct air carbon capture and storage (DACCS), enhanced weathering and ocean alkalinization. These differ widely in terms of maturity, potentials, costs, risks, co-benefits and trade-offs”. In other words, most of the required technology is currently unavailable or is largely untested for such an undertaking.
- There will be significant impact on current national and global social development initiatives such as the eradication of poverty, sustainable development, and the reduction of inequalities if global temperature rises go above 1.5o And only if mitigation and adaptation synergies are accelerated and trade offs are minimised.
The final section of the report stresses the following point:
“ Collective efforts at all levels, in ways that reflect different circumstances and capabilities, in the pursuit of limiting global warming to 1.5oC, taking into account equity as well as effectiveness, can facilitate strengthening the global response to climate change, achieving sustainable development and eradicating poverty (high confidence).”
Although that appears like a clear proposal on what needs to be done to minimise global temperature rises to 1.5oC or below, take a minute to think about what it means.
It requires a massive and coordinated multifaceted long-term international response, in perpetuity. It requires life changing alterations to the lifestyles of communities and individuals all over the globe, from the rich in Manhattan to the poor in Calcutta. It means we must cease reliance on fossil fuels by 2050, particularly coal and oil. It means we must reduce consumption of meat, swiftly phase out industrial factory farming, and somehow (and I have not heard anybody talking about this point) reduce or reverse population growth.
All this means disruptions to food production and supply chains, and significant and sustained changes in our diets. It means vastly reduced levels of air travel, and vastly reduced reliance on shipping (ie – a big reduction in international trade). It means no more plastics, limited supply of wood, extremely expensive petrol and diesel, and it means a complete abandonment of our aversion of nuclear power. It will mean that until we somehow manage to develop and achieve more environmentally sustainable economic targets, most of the world human population will have to almost immediately begin to live practically “off grid” for a long period of time. It will involve a coordinated industrial, economic, and infrastructural mobilisation on a world scale where all governments work together to put aside national priorities while they work at reducing entrenched carbon release processes. It will, in short, require a global cooperative effort with no historical precedence.
Will that happen? Not a chance. In my country (Ireland) we cannot even come together to build a road quickly.
Why do I say that? Well, lets go back to The Onion headline mentioned earlier. The cold depressing truth is that nobody is really listening to the messages from this report, or any other report. Not the way they should be. Who wants to think about future wide ranging drought events, flood, famine, disease, sea level rises, ocean acidification, war, migrations and economic collapse when they just started a new family? Or have lived a life and now retired. The immensity of it, the sheer magnitude of the actions required, the severity of the consequences if we don’t act, is provoking the natural human response to put ones head into the sand.
People are aware of it. I know. I am asking them as I go about my daily life. But if they are aware of the problem, and agree that we need to tackle it, why then are they voting in leaders that claim to disbelieve it, or ignore it?
Donal Trump was voted in because among other things, he professed to restart the US coal industry, one the worst kinds of carbon release industries. As well as pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement (which now seems largely a pointless gesture since none of the other nations can, or seem willing, to stick to their agreed CO2 emission targets) the US government is also doing their best to weaken environmental regulations and laws.
Trump yesterday (14 October) blurted that climate change “might” be a reality, but incredibly he said he believes it will change back, and that scientists have a political agenda (link). He knows this is pure unadulterated nonsense, but he is talking to his base, and he refuses to take responsibility as a leader for the actions required. In a recent previous interview, he acknowledged climate change but professed that it is too late to do anything about it, so why change anything. This is very dangerous thinking to come from a leading world power, and who is also the largest polluter.
And he is not alone. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro is extremely close to winning the presidency after threatening to cut down vast swathes of the rainforest, and I believe he will (link). In my country, Ireland, which has a substantial Brazilian population, Brazilians voting via their embassy gave him 366 votes, giving him a very close second place (in the Irish vote) behind the front runner Ciro Combes, who received 369 (link). Most Brazilians I know are aware of the climate report, and of climate change in general. It is in their media as much as our own. Yet a huge number of them gave this man their vote. Brazil also has one of the worlds largest expanses of extremely valuable rainforest, a resource the IPCC report repeatedly stresses is among the most powerful and effective at our disposal for removing and locking carbon from the atmosphere. Yet they will be voting in a leader who will want to cut it down, further.
All over the world leaders seem either unwilling or unable to take responsibility. And the most damaging of them are wilfully ignoring the warnings and are actively working against them. In a giant global geographic arc starting from Brazil and cutting up though the United States and into Canada, swinging across the Atlantic into Europe* and Russia, into Asia, down through the Philippines and into Australia, populists, like Trump, are dredging support and votes by offering unrealistic but very simple solutions to very complex issues. People want answers and actions, but they want them now, simply and quickly, with minimal impact to either their lifestyle, or their values, or their belief systems.
Do you think that that is a sweeping generalisation? Well, consider that people will be reading newspaper articles about this climate report, probably agreeing with its warnings, and yet the same people still vote these political parties and flamboyant showmen into office.*
Consider that over 50% of the world’s forests have been cleared, and that Trump and Bolsonaro pledge to open up more wilderness for “development”. Also consider that the UK government today (15 October) allowed fracking to recommence (link). Clearly governments, despite most of them acknowledging the risks from climate change, are not willing to confront it. Donald Trump in his 60 Minutes interview in fact, albeit inadvertently, blurted out the real reason why governments are reluctant to act:
“I think something’s happening. Something’s changing, and it’ll change back again. I don’t think it’s a hoax, I think there’s probably a difference. But I don’t know that it’s man-made. I will say this. I don’t want to give trillions and trillions of dollars. I don’t want to lose millions and millions of jobs. I don’t want to be put at a disadvantage.”
There it is. They don’t want to lose millions of dollars, millions of jobs, and be put at a disadvantage – I presume Trump means militarily and economically. And here is the devastating point – he has a point. Who would be the first to step up and render themselves militarily and economically vulnerable by announcing drastic measures to counter rising CO2 emissions? It would have to be a global leader. A powerful nation with reach and influence. The USA. China. Russia. Brazil. Or even the European Union as a collective.
I don’t see it. I have absolutely no hope that we will come together in the international effort required to limit the effects to 1.5oC and mitigate the consequences.
I sincerely hope I am wrong.
*Update: 30 October 2018, three weeks after the publication and widespread coverage of the climate report.
Brazil just two days ago voted Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency, and in Ireland, in the same weekend, we gave substantial vote to our own newest populist, Peter Casey, in the Irish presidential elections.