The point of no re­turn

The world is in Poland to ham­mer out a new cli­mate deal. Is it too late?

The Guardian Weekly - - Front page - By Robin McKie

This week hun­dreds of politi­cians, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and sci­en­tists have gath­ered in the grandeur of the In­ter­na­tional Congress Cen­tre in Ka­tow­ice, Poland. It will be a fa­mil­iar ex­pe­ri­ence for many. For 24 years the an­nual UN cli­mate con­fer­ence has served up a re­li­able diet of rhetoric, back­room talks and dra­matic last-minute deals aimed at halt­ing global warm­ing.

But this year’s will be a grim­mer af­fair – by far. As re­cent re­ports have made clear, the world may no longer be hov­er­ing at the edge of de­struc­tion but has prob­a­bly stag­gered be­yond a cru­cial point of no re­turn. Cli­mate catas­tro­phe is now look­ing in­evitable. We have sim­ply left it too late to hold ris­ing global tem­per­a­tures to un­der 1.5C and so pre­vent a fu­ture of drowned coasts, ru­ined coral reefs, spread­ing deserts and melted glaciers.

One ex­am­ple was pro­vided last week by a UN re­port that re­vealed at­tempts to en­sure fos­sil fuel emis­sions peak by 2020 will fail. In­deed the tar­get will not even be reached by 2030. An­other, by the World Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal Or­gan­i­sa­tion, said the past four years had been the warm­est on record and warned that global tem­per­a­tures could eas­ily rise by 3-5C by 2100, well above that sought-af­ter goal of 1.5C. At the same time, prospects of reach­ing global deals to halt emis­sions have been weak­ened by the spread of rightwing pop­ulism. Not much to smile about in Ka­tow­ice.

Nor will the planet’s woes end in 2100. Although most dis­cus­sions use the year as a con­ve­nient cut-off point for de­scrib­ing Earth’s likely fate, the changes we have trig­gered will last well be­yond that date, said Svet­lana Jevre­jeva, at the Na­tional Oceanog­ra­phy Cen­tre, Liver­pool. She has stud­ied sea-level rises that will be trig­gered by melt­ing ice sheets and ex­pand­ing warm sea­wa­ter in a world 3-5C hot­ter than it was in pre-in­dus­trial times, and con­cludes these could reach 0.74 to 1.8 me­tres by 2100. This would be enough to del­uge Pa­cific and In­dian Ocean is­land states and dis­place mil­lions from Mi­ami, Guangzhou, Mum­bai and other low-ly­ing cities. The to­tal cost to the planet could top $14tn.

Even then the seas will not stop ris­ing, Jevre­jeva added. “They will con­tinue to climb for cen­turies even af­ter green­house-gas lev­els have been sta­bilised. We could ex­pe­ri­ence the high­est-ever global sea-level rise in the his­tory of hu­man civil­i­sa­tion.”

Vast tracts of prime real es­tate will be de­stroyed – at a time when land will be needed with un­prece­dented des­per­a­tion. Earth’s pop­u­la­tion stands at 7 bil­lion to­day and is pre­dicted to rise to 9 bil­lion by 2050 and set­tle at over 11 bil­lion by 2100 – when cli­mate change will have wrecked ma­jor ecosys­tems and turned farm­lands to dust bowls.

Un­for­tu­nately, many ex­perts be­lieve Earth’s pop­u­la­tion will ac­tu­ally peak well be­yond 11 bil­lion. “It could reach 15 bil­lion,” said Sarah Harper, of Ox­ford’s In­sti­tute of Pop­u­la­tion Age­ing. “All sorts of fac­tors sug­gest women, par­tic­u­larly in sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa, will still want to have rel­a­tively high num­bers of chil­dren and this might keep the world’s pop­u­la­tion ap­proach­ing 15 bil­lion rather than 12 bil­lion.”

The world will have dou­ble its present num­bers – but with hugely re­duced ar­eas of fer­tile land to pro­vide food. We will be liv­ing in a shrunken, scorched planet burst­ing with hu­man be­ings. So­ma­liland gives a grim vi­sion of this fu­ture.

In the past few years cli­mate change has killed 70% of its live­stock and forced tens of thou­sands of fam­i­lies to flee from its scorched in­te­rior to live in refugee camps. “You can touch it, the cli­mate change, in So­ma­liland. It is real. It is here,” the coun­try’s en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter, Shukri Is­mail

Ban­dare, said in the Fi­nan­cial Times last week.

Su­dan and Kenya are also vic­tims of a drought that has dried the Horn of Africa faster than at any other time in the past 2,000 years. Sim­i­larly, in Viet­nam, thou­sands a year are aban­don­ing the once fer­tile Mekong Delta as ris­ing sea­wa­ter pol­lutes paddy fields. By 2050, the World Bank says more than 140 mil­lion will be­come cli­mate refugees.

It will be bad for hu­mans, but cat­a­strophic for Earth’s other in­hab­i­tants. Arc­tic ice loss threat­ens po­lar bears, droughts im­peril monarch but­ter­flies, and koala habi­tats are be­ing de­stroyed by bush fires. In all, about a sixth of all species now face ex­tinc­tion, say sci­en­tists, although in the end no crea­ture or plant will be safe. “Even the most re­silient species will in­evitably fall vic­tim as ex­treme stresses drive ecosys­tems to col­lapse,” said Gio­vanni Strona of Europe’s Joint Re­search Cen­tre in a re­port last week on cli­mate change.

Sci­en­tists warned more than 30 years ago that such a fu­ture lay ahead, but noth­ing was done to stave it off. Only dra­matic mea­sures are now left to those seek­ing to save our burn­ing planet, and these can have grim po­lit­i­cal con­se­quences. In France, for ex­am­ple, pres­i­dent Macron’s new levies on fos­sil fu­els, in­tro­duced to cut emis­sions and to fund re­new­able en­ergy projects have trig­gered ri­ots (see page 15). Had only mod­est changes been en­acted a few decades ago there would be no trou­ble to­day, say an­a­lysts.

But the most telling ex­am­ple is pro­vided by the US, which has emit­ted about a third of the car­bon re­spon­si­ble for global warm­ing. Yet it has es­sen­tially done noth­ing to check its an­nual rises in out­put. Lob­by­ing by the fos­sil fuel in­dus­try has proved highly ef­fec­tive at block­ing po­lit­i­cal change – a point demon­strated by groups such as the Com­pet­i­tive En­ter­prise In­sti­tute and the Heart­land In­sti­tute, which helped per­suade Pres­i­dent Trump to pull out of the Paris agree­ment, thus dash­ing the planet’s last hope. “The coali­tion used its power to slow us down pre­cisely at the mo­ment when we needed to speed up,” said en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist Bill McKibben in the New Yorker. “As a re­sult, the par­tic­u­lar pol­i­tics of one coun­try for one half­cen­tury will have changed the ge­o­log­i­cal his­tory of the Earth.” ROBIN MCKIE IS THE OB­SERVER’S SCI­ENCE AND TECH­NOL­OGY EDITOR

An artist’s ren­der­ing of the flood­ing that would hit South Beach, Mi­ami, if global warm­ing were to rise by 2C NICKOLAY LAMM/COUR­TESY OF SEALEVEL.CLIMATECENTRAL.ORG

Del­e­gates meet in Poland on Mon­day BEATA ZAWRZEL/NURPHOTO

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