It’s the hottest decade–ever

As the decade comes to a close, environmentalists are looking back over the last ten years of supposedly ‘natural’ disasters and extreme weather. It’s alarming: there are absolutely no signs that the global climate crisis is under control.  

Ok, maybe not ‘ever’. But certainly since modern record-keeping began. It just keeps on getting hotter. While Canadians are enjoying a balmy winter (which officially started on December 21, when temperatures were way above seasonal in Toronto), Australians are once again being scorched half to death.

Temperatures peaked on December 21-22 in Victoria and South Australia with  several areas exceeding 48°C.  The heat and bone dry conditions have sparked numerous bushfires. New South Wales has been placed under a total fire ban as firefighters battle to contain more than 100 fires burning around the state, including the 400,000-hectare Gospers Mountain megafire in Wollemi national park in the Blue Mountains.  Across the globe in California, the 2019 fire season, which so far has counted close to 7000 fires, is still not over. Moreover, fires are flaring up in places where they have rarely been seen before—in the Arctic tundra and in Siberia above the Arctic circle. The chart on the left shows the startling spike in carbon emissions from Arctic wildfires that has occurred this year.

Emissions of CO2 from Arctic wildfires

It’s not hard to figure out that the increasing number of wild fires might be sparked and fanned by rising global temperatures. Meteorologists are already saying that 2019 is the planet’s second-warmest year on record, rounding off the hottest decade on Earth since those records begun. Eight of the ten warmest years have occurred this decade, and the other two were just a few years before. The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) headlined their latest assessment by saying that “2019 concludes a decade of exceptional global heat and high-impact weather”.

Unsurprisingly, everywhere scientists look, ice sheets, glaciers, and sea ice are all melting away. As the oceans warm and the edges of the ice sheets crumble, sea levels are inexorably rising and the low-lying islands in the Pacific Ocean are facing an increasingly existential threat. Hundreds of thousands of Pacific islanders will soon have to migrate to safer land. Even greater numbers of people were driven from their homes this year by floods and storms.  More than 10 million new international displacements were recorded between January and June 2019, more than half of which were driven by disasters such as the ferocious Cyclone Idai that savaged Mozambique, Cyclone Fami in South Asia, Hurricane Dorian in the Caribbean, and flooding in Iran the Philippines and Ethiopia.

This backdrop of insufferable heat waves, destructive wildfires, and extreme weather was supposed to add urgency to the deliberations planned for COP25: the 25th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), that serves as a meeting of countries that have signed up to the 2015 Paris Agreement. Moreover, the latest data shows that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and methane, the principal greenhouse gases, are continuing to rise. Levels of carbon dioxide have risen 4% since the Paris Agreement was signed and show no signs of stopping.  So we are not even at the first stage of resolving the climate crisis—which is to get emissions to level off and flatline.

Good COP bad COP?

It was a raucous affair, this 25th meeting of the Conference of Parties.  On the last day, photos of Secretary-General Antonio Guterres show him almost apoplectic with rage. But in retrospect, it was always obvious that nothing much was going to be accomplished—at least not in the main event, which was to sort out the rules governing the management of carbon trading. The fossil-fuel backed contingent was huge, well-funded, and hosted non-stop social events.  Industry lobbyists have had unfettered access to the COP events since they started years ago. Unlike the World Health Organisation, which bans tobacco lobbyists from taking part in negotiations about regulating cigarettes, the UNFCCC has no protection against industry interference and propaganda.  

All the top denierati came along, including Lord Monckton—a British eccentric with absolutely no scientific credentials, but years of experience in obfuscating climate science and promoting conspiracy theories about the work of reputable climate scientists. All this must have been known to the conference organisers well in advance. The US delegation, in principle limited to observer status, interfered in any discussion which was not to their liking—such as anything that involved funding loss and damage.

Spanish plain-clothed police block youth and indigenous groups from entering the conference centre

But just like a high-profile and over-hyped boxing match, it’s often the undercard which is more interesting. There was a huge and noisy presence of environmental groups and protestors from all corners of the world. At one point 200 community delegates were thrown out of the conference centre after staging an impromptu sit-in. This kind of disruption is essential for keeping the media on its toes and focused on the event. In a first, there was actually a reference to ‘fossil fuels’.  These are apparently the new ‘F words’.  Astonishingly, there has never been a reference to fossil fuels in previous COP meetings, and even in the Paris Agreement the words are not mentioned. For the oil conglomerates and the petrochemical industries, this is the love that dare not speak its name—at least not in the halls of the United Nations.

This deliberate crafting of the narrative to exculpate the fossil fuel industry speaks volumes about the influence of an industry which has known for over 50 years about the damaging climate impacts of their emissions, and which has spent huge amounts of money to buy the silence and inaction of compliant politicians and regulators.

But in a roundabout way I see COP25 as a success. It shone a bright light on the unceasing machinations and propaganda of the extraction industries that continue to drive the world towards a future where much of the planet will be uninhabitable. The conference language is getting stronger; the tone more aggressive.  Smaller countries have named and shamed the grossest emitters. The Alliance of Small Island States complained that Brazil, Saudi Arabia, India and China were “part of the problem”.  Catherine Abreu, from Canada’s Climate Action Network, excoriated the assembly for their hypocrisy and lack of action.  A diplomat branded the US a “climate criminal”. Guterres warned that failure would turn the climate crisis into the “survival of the richest”, and several hundred thousand protesters marched in the streets of Madrid on Friday, December 6.

It was all quite bad-tempered–as indeed it should be. It’s about time.

While some governments bicker, obstruct, and prevaricate, non-state actors are taking the lead. In the US, states like California are in the vanguard of efforts to reduce emissions. Civil society organisations with global reach are taking action. This is an important galvanising effect of the COP events. They provide an essential forum and arena where the battle for the future of planet Earth is being played out and where the media is closely watching. It may be a circus, but we get to ID the clowns.


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