As the grim warnings of the recent IPCC report on global warming of 1.5°C fade from memory, and people go back to dealing with environmental issues closer to home, it’s worth taking a second look at a couple of things mentioned in the report that don’t seem to have gotten much attention.
Small islands are in serious trouble
The IPCC summary report (you can find it here) mentions small islands in several places—almost in passing. But if you are familiar with the dire situation of most of the SIDS (the Small Island Developing States), what you read between the lines is not good news.
Increased warming amplifies the exposure of low-lying small islands to the risks associated with sea level rise including increased saltwater intrusion, flooding, and damage to essential infrastructure. The islands in the Pacific are particularly at risk: Nauru, the Cook Islands, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, the North Mariana Islands, French Polynesia, and the coral islands of the Federated States of Micronesia. These islands are all hugely vulnerable and already losing coastal areas and low-lying atolls to flooding, erosion, king tides, and storm surges.
Climate related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth are all expected to increase with global warming of 1.5°C. Populations at disproportionately higher risk include disadvantaged and vulnerable populations in Arctic ecosystems, dryland regions and, once again, the small island developing states. Levels of poverty are expected to increase. Countries in the tropics, where the majority of the SIDS are located, are expected to suffer the greatest impacts on economic growth. In addition, some vulnerable regions, including small islands, are expected to experience multiple interrelated climate risks even at global warming of 1.5°C.
It’s widely accepted that global warming has increased sea surface temperatures which in turn have increased the intensity of tropical storms and cyclones. Almost all the small island developing states are potentially in the path of these storms. In 2017, Hurricane Maria, caused massive damage on several Caribbean islands including Dominica and Puerto Rico. The year before hurricane Matthew tore across Haiti pretty much destroying everything in its path. These storms frequently cause huge economic damage and drive thousands of families deeper into poverty.
Island biodiversity is almost everywhere in decline. Haiti’s primary forests have almost completely disappeared together with a large number of endemic species. Puerto Rico’s arthropod species have declined alarmingly. What biologists call the sixth extinction is not imaginary. It is well underway on many small islands.
Just a few days after the IPCC report was issued, and as if to drive home the point about rising sea levels, an island close to Hawaii became permanently overwashed by the ocean—effectively it disappeared.
East Island was small : only about 1 km long and 130 m wide. The tiny island was battered by Hurricane Walaka in October and was almost totally washed away. The island was an important habitat for endangered Hawaiian monk seals, Hawaiian green sea turtle and several species of seabirds. Hawaiian monk seals are among the most endangered marine mammals in the world—and around 80 percent of their population are located around the northwestern Hawaiian islands. Hurricane Walaka was one of the most intense Pacific hurricanes on record, and the second category 5 hurricane of the 2018 Pacific hurricane season.
The IPCC report also weighs in on the question of the carbon budget. Estimates differ depending on the temperature basis being used, but the remaining budget is reckoned to be somewhere between 420 and 570 billion tonnes of CO2 (GtCO2). This is the maximum total amount of CO2 that can be emitted globally if the world is to have at least a two-thirds chance of staying below 1.5°C of warming. At the present time, global emissions are running at about 42 GtCO2/yr—so we’ll have used up the remaining budget within 10 to 14 years. Maybe even earlier if the permafrost tundra keeps melting and releasing methane—a greenhouse gas much stronger than carbon dioxide.
In this context, let’s take a look at what’s under our feet.
Every year British Petroleum publishes a report which provides detailed information on fossil fuel reserves. In 2017, global reserves were estimated as follows:
Can all this oil, natural gas, and coal be burned as fuel without driving global temperatures a lot higher than they are now, and way above the 2°C upper limit set under the Paris Agreement? The short answer is no. They can’t.
This logic is what drives the ‘Keep it in the ground’ movement. Yet the world continues to burn coal for generating electricity (and to choke on the air pollution and urban smog), and the oil companies continue to explore for even more petroleum resources—most of which will be impossible to exploit without doing irreparable harm to the planet.
There’s still time to transition power systems to renewable energy, electric transportation, net zero energy buildings, and low emission industries using carbon capture and storage. But time is fast running out.
This situation need to be seen in the context of where we are right now in terms of climate change. Last year, global emissions of carbon dioxide rose once again—in lockstep with the other greenhouse gases. Atmospheric CO2 levels are once again at a record high.
So in spite of all the talk about curtailing emissions of greenhouse gases and limiting global warming the geophysical evidence shows that nothing has changed.
In fact, it’s getting worse.