The grim reality is that Greta Thunberg’s passionate speech lambasting global leaders at the UN climate summit in New York on September 23 is unlikely to make much of a difference in the way the largest global polluters do business. The top emitters aren’t bothered: the US didn’t show up; China yawned; Brazil was shown the door, and India agreed that more should be done but made no promises. Disgraced UK prime minister Boris Johnson promised more money. How many times have we heard that one before? Seventy developing countries committed to stronger action—but there is little they can do to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases on a global scale. The Pacific small island states are close to panic: they know that their days are numbered.
A UN report, appropriately called The heat is on, released just before the climate summit, projected that with the current set of emission reduction plans (the Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs negotiated under the 2015 Paris Agreement), emissions of carbon will in fact rise by over 10 percent between now and 2030. Confirming the upward trend, the International Energy Agency reported that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions grew 1.7 % from 2017 to 2018, the highest rate of growth since 2013. This is insane. It’s no longer business-as-usual. It’s more business than ever before.
Greta Thunberg didn’t mince words : In a stinging speech, the Swedish teenager told governments that “You are still not mature enough to tell it like it is. You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal.”
At the end of the Summit, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres tried to put a brave face on things saying, “I was deeply moved by many examples of inspiring leadership by countries that have done the least to contribute to the climate crisis.” But despite what he called “the ambitious commitments made today”, Guterres emphasized that they were still not enough to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C by the end of the century. He called on all countries to do three things: put a meaningful price on carbon, phase out fossil fuel subsidies, and stop building coal plants. He reiterated the last point: “The large number of coal power plants still projected to be built are a looming threat to us all … I repeat my appeal: No new coal power plants should be built after 2020.”
Adding more gloom to the disappointing outcome of the summit, the day after the meeting wrapped up in New York, the IPCC released a third interim report which in many ways is even more alarming than any that have been published so far. The Special report on the ocean and cryosphere in a changing climate is pretty much all bad news. The oceans are warming ‘unabated’, absorbing 90% of the excess heat in the climate system and causing marine heat waves that have doubled in frequency and become more intense. The massive ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic are melting at an alarming rate, and global mean sea level is rising faster than predicted due to the accelerating ice sheet melting.
Permafrost temperatures have increased to record high levels. These frozen soils contain almost twice as much carbon as the amount in the atmosphere. The experts are divided as to whether northern permafrost regions are currently releasing additional methane and carbon dioxide due to the thawing soils, but if it’s happening, this is potentially the start of a catastrophic tipping point that will see global heating rapidly accelerate. “It’s bad, and it’s going to get much, much worse—that’s the bottom line. But it’s not hopeless”, said Jane Lubchenco, a former head of the US National oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and one of the reviewers of the report. “If we move, then it’s not hopeless.” She said. And if we don’t move? What then?
Oil companies say they are concerned about climate change while at the same time they continue to invest in exploration. The logic of their stance is clear. They intend to keep drilling for oil and gas while banking on developing technology to capture the carbon emission from their operations. It’s a bankrupt strategy that is based on the assumption that they can keep the world running on fossil fuels if they can find a way to curb the associated emissions.
The truth is that it’s technically impossible to completely eliminate emissions of carbon dioxide and methane from the production, processing, transport and consumption of oil and gas. In parallel with this strategy, the oil companies and their petrochemical allies are working to impede the development of electric vehicles. They cover their tracks by spending a few million dollars on renewable energy so they can burnish their supposedly green credentials. It’s all a scam.
Analysis by Carbon Tracker shows that since 2018 oil companies have invested at least $50 billion in fossil fuel projects. This includes Shell’s $13 billion liquefied natural gas project in Canada and BP, Chevron, Exxon Mobil and Equinor’s $4.3 billion deep-water oil project in Azerbaijan. Trump is complicit: extolling the virtues of oil and gas, rolling back vehicle emission controls in California, and planning to open up the Arctic to drilling. This in a region which is warming faster than any other on the planet, and which carries the huge risk of triggering a devastating tipping point if sources of geologic methane start to be released in substantial quantities.
Now that the northern hemisphere’s summer’s heat is waning, it’s easy to forget how many other places in the world are dangerously hot. Surely no-one can survive in temperatures that regularly exceed 50°C? But in Jacobabad, Pakistan, temperatures reached 51.1°C earlier this month. If the power cuts out and hospital air-conditioning shuts down, people die, including babies in intensive care. It’s getting to the point where some regions of the world are becoming uninhabitable. Not just because of the intolerable heat, but because of the associated drought and the collapse of agriculture.
Data published by the Center for American Progress, show that in 2017, close to 68 million people across the world were forcibly displaced, more than at any other time in human history. About a third of them are estimated to have been forced to move by climate-driven events: floods, drought, wildfires, and intense cyclones. In 2018, the World Bank estimated that three regions (Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia) will generate 143 million climate refugees by 2050. The worsening climate is rarely the sole cause of this escalating migration, but it is becoming an increasingly important factor.
The exception are the islands in the Pacific—where sea level rise and storm surge regularly inundate the low-lying islands, destroying crops, drowning livestock, and contaminating groundwater. By 2100, it is estimated that 48 islands will be lost to the rising and increasingly turbulent oceans.
There is so much information coming in now about the climate crisis it’s hard for me to keep up. From now on, the climatezone website will summarise the most important developments, comment on their significance, and provide the links to the source material. The posts will therefore include more content, but in a shorter more condensed form.