The news in the summer of 2017 was all about the hurricanes in the Caribbean (three of which ripped into the US causing extensive damage), the earthquakes in Iran, Iraq, and Mexico, and disastrous, flooding in India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh that drowned over a thousand people and displaced millions more.
In 2018, the roll call of natural disasters continued: stifling heatwaves in Australia, numerous destructive wildfires along the west coast of America and Canada, and more devastating hurricanes tearing into the Caribbean islands and the USA. Then in early 2019, the monster cyclone Idai barrelled into Mozambique killing at least 1000 people and leaving almost half a million homeless.
Are these disasters becoming more frequent, and are they somehow related to climate change? Or do they always happen every 10 or 20 years, and so the disasters of the last few years are just a normal run of horrible weather: storms, heatwaves, and floods.
Most people have read that scientists and meteorologists are saying that global temperatures are now increasing year after year. After 2015, which was a record-breaking year, 2016 was hotter still and then so was 2017. The five hottest years on record have all occurred since 2010. Is this just part of a normal cycle of temperature variations that sometimes go up and then eventually come down?
Earth, wind and fire
But the warning signs are unmistakeable. The Earth is suffering from a multitude of stresses and forces that are making life miserable and dangerous–not just for the majority of people around the world, but also for most of the ecosystems and animal species that share this space with us. Something is seriously wrong. Something out there is having a malign influence on what was once a beautiful and healthy planet.
Worsening heatwaves, storms, droughts, floods, and wildfires; melting glaciers; and bleaching coral are all directly accelerated by higher global temperatures. Other problems are impacted less directly: air pollution, for instance, is much more deadly during a heatwave. Biodiversity, while predominantly threatened by a multitude of human-driven activities including the loss of habitat for thousands of species, is further stressed by the warming climate.
Scientists and environmentalists are talking about a climate crisis, rather than just climate change. And the occurrence of global warming is now being described as global heating. The climate situation is getting worse, not better.
There is no question that the harnessing of carbon-based fossil fuels has enabled the Earth’s dominant species, homo sapiens, not just to inherit the Earth, but to dominate it in ways unimaginable even a century ago. Without plentiful supplies of coal, oil, and natural gas, there is no way the planet could have managed to support the almost 8 billion people who now call it home.
Not that all of them are in great shape. But up until a few decades ago, economic prospects for the populations of most countries, at least those not involved in armed conflict, were pretty good. Harnessing the world’s plentiful sources of fossil fuel energy has made that happen. In developing countries, access to modern forms of energy has helped lift millions of people out of poverty.
But when fossil fuels are burned—either to generate electricity or to power all the forms of transport that keep the global economy moving, the carbon in these fuels is driven into the atmosphere as a gas–carbon dioxide. This is the main greenhouse gas that is heating the planet.
What are the external costs associated with fossil fuels–the costs that the polluter never pays? This is the hidden story of all the horrendous accidents and catastrophes caused by the need to constantly move enormous quantities of highly flammable hydrocarbon liquids and gases across North America and around the world in pipelines, tank cars, and super-tankers.
The road not taken – yet
Although renewable energy accounts for only about 20% of global primary energy, it is rapidly gaining ground. As the demand for electricity and electrical power ramps up in the emerging economies, and as the need to provide electricity in rural villages in Africa and Asia becomes a top priority, it is solar photovoltaic minigrid technologies that are increasingly providing the much-needed energy.
Wind turbines and solar photovoltaic installations are now fully cost-competitive with fossil fuel power—and even with electricity generated by natural gas. Moreover, wind power and solar energy have zero emissions of carbon dioxide and methane—the principal greenhouse gases. They are technologies that don’t require any pipelines, oil tankers, or coal trains in order to deliver energy to cities. Renewable energy technologies are the safest and cleanest power technologies available–with almost zero environmental impact.
As global warming and the climate crisis has gradually become a problem of international importance and concern, the link between the emission of greenhouse gases and the consumption of fossil has become undeniable. Even before the end of the last century, the major oil companies and the coal conglomerates had figured out that if governments were convinced that they needed to reduce the emissions of carbon gases, they were very likely going to reorient national energy policies towards renewable sources of energy and to gradually curtail the consumption of fossil fuels—starting with coal-fired electricity generation. Introducing measures to reduce the consumption of gasoline and diesel fuel in the transport sector was almost certain to follow. This was not the vision of the future that the coal and petroleum companies had in mind.
The oil and petrochemical companies envisioned a scenario which was not just business as usual, but where coal, oil and natural gas increasingly dominated global energy supply through to at least the middle of the 21st century. There was no solar energy or wind power in this scenario—only coal, oil and natural gas.
The fossil fuel companies knew that they could not continue to deny the evidence-based facts. Even their own scientists knew what was happening: emissions of carbon dioxide from the combustion of coal and hydrocarbon fuels were causing the global climate to slowly warm.
So began a long, insidious, covert program, funded and orchestrated by some of the largest fossil fuel companies, to undermine and contradict the scientific basis for global warming, and to convince the world that climate science was defective, riddled with errors, and highly uncertain. It’s called Manufacturing Uncertainty and Doubt (MUD). It’s been very effective, and it’s never stopped.
Back to the future
The reports about the worsening impacts of climate change that were published in 2018 and 2019 have convinced increasing numbers of people that governments need to take much more forceful action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, and that this can only be achieved by making major changes in the way energy is provided to people in all countries across the world. Shutting down coal-fired power plants, electrifying the transport sector, making cities and towns car-free and pedestrian-friendly, and generating solar photovoltaic electricity throughout the built environment, are all measures that are essential if the climate crisis is to be brought to an end. These changes amount to a paradigm global shift in the use of new forms of energy. This has happened before in the history of mankind, but never in a situation like the present where the steadily worsening climate makes the pace of this transition so urgent.
These changes have started; they are underway; they can’t be stopped. But the rate of change is far too slow, and the risk is that while politicians continue to argue, ponder and prevaricate, the global climate will change abruptly as tipping points are triggered that set the Earth on a path from which it cannot recover. This is not science fiction—it is a real possibility before the middle of this century.
Bringing an end to the climate crisis is definitely possible. We understand the science and we have the technology. There is no single solution to this global problem. No silver bullet. But by looking at each sector in turn: power generation, transport, industry, agriculture, and the built environment, it is possible to identify the measures that need to be taken, and to map out a route that takes the world to a place by 2050 where global warming is less than 2°C, and where climate change impacts are likely to be mostly manageable. Mostly. But not for all of us.
There will still be extreme weather. Ferocious storms, huge wildfires, devastating drought and floods will be much more common and destructive. Many people will die. Millions more in the most vulnerable areas will try to migrate to safer and less hazardous regions. This climate-driven migration will cause widespread turmoil, strife and conflict across Europe and North America. This is simply going to be a fact of life before we arrive at the middle of the 21st Century. Moreover, there is no way to avoid at least a metre of sea level rise before 2100, and many scientists believe that sea levels will be substantially higher even before that time. Several small island states will have to be abandoned, and many coral islands will simply disappear for ever.
There are many ways in which people and communities can pressure governments at municipal, regional and national levels to take action. The most obvious one is to elect people who show that they understand and believe climate science and can be trusted to develop policy initiatives and to support legislation that is aimed at reducing emissions, driving a transition to renewable sources of energy, and greatly increasing the efficiency with which energy is used in homes, businesses and industry. Governments: national, state and provincial, all need to be fully committed to working to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. If not, more progressive and environmentally-aware candidates need to be elected. Regulatory agencies that are effectively run by fossil fuel insiders and lobbyists need to be loudly called out and challenged—if necessary, in the courts.
Most importantly, people need to be better informed about climate change, the climate crisis, and the importance of strongly promoting renewable sources of energy. Although the subject can appear to be quite technical, the underlying principles are not. Everyone should know about the severe environmental impacts caused by the extraction and use of coal, oil and natural gas–including the enormous cost of the health impacts caused by burning these fuels. People need to read up about the Paris Agreement, their government’s commitments made under that protocol, and the progress being made to meet emission reduction targets.
The climate crisis can be brought to an end. But much more forceful action is needed. It’s time to rock the boat.
Need to know more?
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