Our world will all pay a high price for col­lec­tive fail­ures on cli­mate change

The ev­i­dence about cli­mate change is clear — but the world is still not do­ing enough to pre­vent it, writes Colm McCarthy

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Comment -

IF you fore­cast a pre­ventable dis­as­ter, iden­tify eva­sive ac­tion but fail to im­ple­ment it, the un­pleas­ant out­come ceases to be a fore­cast and be­comes your cur­rent re­al­ity. And so it has been with cli­mate change. The warn­ings of sci­en­tists 30 or 40 years ago could be dis­missed, and they were, as alarmist. The fore­casts might be wrong and any­way, there was plenty of time to take pre­ven­tive mea­sures.

An im­por­tant re­port re­leased in Wash­ing­ton last Fri­day week con­firms the re­peated find­ings of the UN’s cli­mate panel: the con­se­quences of in­ac­tion mean that cli­mate change is al­ready hav­ing wide­spread and ob­serv­able neg­a­tive im­pacts. The fore­casts have be­come re­al­ity and the in­creased fre­quency of se­vere weather events will get worse. The cost of pre­ven­tive mea­sures will rise the longer they are de­layed.

The 1,500-page re­port came from a team of 300 US sci­en­tists es­tab­lished un­der Amer­ica’s Global Change Re­search Act of 1990. They must re­port to Congress ev­ery four years; the re­port must be pub­lished, and no ex­pense has been spared in its prepa­ra­tion. The Trump White House could not de­lay or mod­ify the re­port and the Pres­i­dent has con­fined him­self to a curt dis­missal of its find­ings

When the leg­is­la­tion was passed (unan­i­mously) in the Se­nate, one of its spon­sors, Sen­a­tor Ernest Hollings, had this to say: “The prob­lem we face is po­ten­tially enor­mous. Global warm­ing could rad­i­cally change world cli­mate and world agri­cul­ture…We need a de­ter­mined and co­or­di­nated re­search ef­fort, both here in the US and with other na­tions, to get the facts about the ex­act causes and con­se­quences of global change. For our chil­dren and grand­chil­dren, now is the time to start that ef­fort.”

Al­most 30 years later, the ev­i­dence has been as­sem­bled and the prob­lem is no longer “po­ten­tially enor­mous”. The co­or­di­nated re­search ef­fort called for by Sen­a­tor Hollings has been over­seen by the UN In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change, much of it un­der­taken in the United States.

This is the prin­ci­pal con­clu­sion of the lat­est US re­port: “Global cli­mate is chang­ing rapidly com­pared to the pace of nat­u­ral vari­a­tions in cli­mate that have oc­curred through­out Earth’s his­tory. Global av­er­age tem­per­a­ture has in­creased by about 1°C from 1901 to 2016, and ob­ser­va­tional ev­i­dence does not sup­port any cred­i­ble nat­u­ral ex­pla­na­tions for this amount of warm­ing: in­stead the ev­i­dence con­sis­tently points to hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties, es­pe­cially emis­sions of green­house or heat-trap­ping gases, as the dom­i­nant cause.”

This con­clu­sion (note the use of the cur­rent tense — the cli­mate is chang­ing rapidly) co­in­cides with the re­peated find­ings of the UN panel, one of the largest col­lab­o­ra­tive re­search projects ever un­der­taken and in­volv­ing thou­sands of sci­en­tists from around the world.

Cli­mate change is an es­tab­lished pat­tern, al­ready ob­serv­able, and fore­cast to in­ten­sify un­less global ac­tion is ac­cel­er­ated. That ac­tion, say the sci­en­tists, should be fo­cused on re­duc­ing the com­bus­tion of fos­sil fu­els on a global ba­sis. Cli­mate sci­en­tists, engi­neers and econ­o­mists have es­tab­lished that pre­ven­tive ac­tion be­comes costlier the longer it is de­layed. In the face of such a con­sen­sus of ev­i­dence, it takes a brave politi­cian to re­verse cur­rent poli­cies, par­tic­u­larly when these poli­cies are al­ready prov­ing in­ad­e­quate.

There will be no suc­cess in ad­dress­ing cli­mate change un­less ac­tion is taken glob­ally: the planet has just one at­mos­phere and all car­bon emis­sions af­fect it in sim­i­lar fash­ion. The great­est re­spon­si­bil­ity rests with the largest emit­ters, China and the United States. If these coun­tries do too lit­tle, it barely mat­ters what is done in small coun­tries. Ire­land’s an­nual emis­sions from fuel com­bus­tion equate to about two days’ emis­sions in the USA, or just a day and a half for China.

Since tak­ing of­fice, Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion has re- versed cer­tain emis­sion-re­duc­ing mea­sures in­tro­duced by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, he has with­drawn the US from the Paris agree­ment and has cast him­self as a cham­pion of the de­clin­ing Ap­palachian coal in­dus­try. Nei­ther the Obama mea­sures nor the Paris agree­ment were in any case an ad­e­quate re­sponse to the scale of the cli­mate threat.

Trump gave an off-the-cuff re­sponse to the new re­port to John Dawsey of the Wash­ing­ton Post, re­pro­duced here with­out com­ment.

“One of the prob­lems that a lot of peo­ple like my­self, we have very high lev­els of in­tel­li­gence, but we’re not nec­es­sar­ily such be­liev­ers. You look at our air and our wa­ter and it’s right now at a record clean.

“But when you look at China and you look at parts of Asia and when you look at South Amer­ica, and when you look at many other places in this world, in­clud­ing Rus­sia, in­clud­ing — just many other places — the air is in­cred­i­bly dirty.

“And when you’re talk­ing about an at­mos­phere, oceans are very small. And it blows over and it sails over. I mean, we take thou­sands of tons of garbage off our beaches all the time that comes over from Asia. It just flows right down the Pa­cific, it flows, and we say where does this come from. And it takes many peo­ple to start off with.

“Num­ber two, if you go back and if you look at ar­ti­cles, they talked about global freez­ing, they talked about at some point the plan­ets could have freeze to death, then it’s go­ing to die of heat ex­haus­tion. There is move­ment in the at­mos­phere. There’s no ques­tion. As to whether or not it’s man-made and whether or not the ef­fects you’re talk­ing about are there, I don’t see it — not nearly like it is.

“Do we want clean wa­ter? Ab­so­lutely. Do we want clean air to breathe? Ab­so­lutely. The fire in Cal­i­for­nia, where I was, if you looked at the floor, the floor of the fire, they have trees that were fallen, they did no for­est man­age­ment, no for­est man­age­ment, and you can light — you can take a match like this and you can light a tree trunk when that thing is lay­ing there for more than 14 or 15 months. And it’s a mas­sive prob­lem in Cal­i­for­nia.”

A meet­ing of the par­ties (al­most all the coun­tries in the world) to the UN Con­ven­tion on Cli­mate Change con­venes to­day in Ka­tow­ice, in south­ern Poland. Ex­pec­ta­tions are low, and the US del­e­ga­tion will face quite a chal­lenge in agree­ing a com­mu­nique in view of the pres­i­dent’s in­sights.

Del­e­gates can re­lieve the te­dium by vis­it­ing the large coal-fired power sta­tions in the re­gion. Pol­ish power gen­er­a­tion is 80pc reliant on coal, the govern­ment is con­tem­plat­ing the con­struc­tion of a new unit and has been re­sist­ing EU ef­forts to scale back on burn­ing coal, the most car­bon-in­ten­sive of the ma­jor fos­sil fu­els.

If Trump wins re-elec­tion in 2020, it will be six years be­fore any kind of con­certed in­ter­na­tional ac­tion — the only kind that will work — gets to be taken. If he loses’ there is no guar­an­tee that the win­ning ticket will in­clude cli­mate ac­tion. An ef­fec­tive global pol­icy needs agree­ment be­tween three key play­ers, the USA, China and the Eu­ro­pean Union, with gen­tle threats to oth­ers to join the club.

Un­for­tu­nately, the only one of the three with any con­vic­tion is the Eu­ro­pean Union, where per capita emis­sions have al­ready been re­duced to half the US level.

Don­ald Trump’s 2016 elec­tion win is go­ing to prove ex­pen­sive.

‘There will be no suc­cess over cli­mate change with­out global ac­tion’

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