Opinionista Jeff Rudin 15 December 2014

Climate change, and our progress since 2011

It has been three years since the COP17 in Durban – and this period has given us cause for both optimism and despair. The science and politics behind the developments since 2011 is complex and varied. JEFF RUDIN offers some insights.

This year is set to be the warmest on record, which would make 2014 the 38th consecutive year with above normal temperatures, according to a report from the World Meteorological Organisation. Also, just reported by researchers at the University of California and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is that the melt rate of glaciers in West Antarctica has tripled over the past decade. The melting of these glaciers, which contain enough water to raise sea levels by at least a metre, is speeding up and seems irreversible.

Both reports have been published just before the UN’s annual climate change conference attended by the world’s leaders that is now taking place in Peru. This makes it timely to look back to what has happened since the 17th of these gatherings – inelegantly known as the Conference of the Parties (COP) – that took place in Durban, in December 2011.

The three years since Durban have given cause for hope as well as despair. And science is involved in both.

Scientific developments

The connection between carbon dioxide (C02), greenhouse gas and global warming is not contentious. The question has been whether natural causes or human influence is the dominant factor in the dramatic build-up in greenhouse gas. There is now a confident answer. The consensus view – amongst the 800 peer-reviewed 5,000 pages of scientific work behind the 5th Assessment Report, of 2013, of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – is ‘unequivocal’. With a 95% certainty, it concludes that human influence is the primary cause. It is very rare indeed for such a large group of scientist to be ‘unequivocal’ about anything.

The scientist credited with having first forced the US Congress to take anthropegenic global warming seriously was James Hansen. He did so in 1988. Writing in mid-2012, he confessed to having made a serious mistake. His warning of 22 years ago turned out to be far too optimistic. The speed of global warming leading to what he described as “a stunning increase in the frequency of extremely hot summers” took him by surprise. He notes that it is no longer enough to “repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change”. His own research showed “there is virtually no explanation other than climate change” for the contemporary plague of extreme weather. “The odds that natural variability created these extremes are minuscule, vanishingly small”, according to Hansen, for whom, as a scientist, caveats are the normal stock-in-trade. “To count on those odds”, he warned, would be “like quitting your job and playing the lottery every morning to pay the bills”.

When someone like Hansen speaks with such a definite tone, it behoves all of us to listen well – and to act with the urgency of his conclusion: “The future is now. And it is hot.”

Just how hot is most alarming.

Reports from around the world all agree that the earth is heading for a 3-6oC increase above the pre-industrial age, by the end of the century. This is the global average; for the arctic it means an 8-10oC increase and between 6-8oC for Africa. Scientists of impeccable integrity and authority agree that a 4 to 6oC warming signboards a very different planet. At its simplest, what are now the hottest of days during the hottest of heat waves would become the new normal [norm?].

The UN has set a maximum temperature of below 2oC, if the ‘tipping point’ of irreversible climate change is to be avoided. This means keeping the C02 concentration in the atmosphere at 350 parts per million. The UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) publishes annual ‘Emission Gap Reports’ with findings that

Current global emissions are already considerably higher than the emission level consistent with the 2oC target and are still growing.

An ominous indication of this constant growth is the unwanted landmark reached on 10 May 2013: 400ppm of CO2 was reached for the first time in over 800,000 years.

Global warming gives rise to the extreme weather events that have increased by 141% in average annual numbers per decade since 1980.

Extreme weather serves to remind otherwise forgetful or negligent politicians of the unforgiving reality of climate change. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which brought destruction and floods to the heart of New York in 2012, President Barack Obama declared:

I am a firm believer that climate change is real; that it is impacted by human behaviour and, as a consequence, we have an obligation to do something about it.

Presenting the latest section of the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report, in November 2014, the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon said:

Science has spoken. There is no ambiguity in the message. Leaders must act, time is not on our side.”

US Secretary of State, John Kerry, was even more forthright:

Those who choose to ignore or dispute the science so clearly laid out in this report do so at great risk for all of us and for our kids and grandkids. The bottom line is that our planet is warming due to human actions, the damage is already visible, and the challenge requires ambitious, decisive and immediate action.”

The reality behind the rhetoric of “ambitious, decisive and immediate action” is …

Business as Usual

Etihad Tower – Abu Dhabi

The business realties that continue to drive the world are symbolically captured by the major UN meeting held at the Etihad Tower in May 2014 as a build-up to the UN Climate Summit in New York in September 2014. The Tower – with its huge amount of greenhouse gas producing cement – no less than the modern creation of Abu Dhabi itself, is, simultaneously, both a monumental expression of the logic of profit maximisation and utter contempt for any of the concerns of climate change or resource depletion.

The same disdain for climate change is to be found in the decision to hold the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Responding to mounting concern about the health insanities of holding the World Cup, the largest single sporting event in the world, in a desert where the summer temperature exceeds 45oC, Qatar – sitting on the world’s third largest gas reserves and determined to become the ‘world capital’ of prestigious sport events – is insistent that the event is viable thanks to new cooling technologies. Neither the enormous energy demands of such cooling nor the cost to the atmosphere in terms of additional greenhouse gas appears to be part of current concerns by either Qatar or the football authorities; or, for that matter, of South Africa that applauds the swimming triumphs of Chad Le Clos without a blink at the implications of holding a world swimming championship in a desert.

This cavalier disregard of climate change is typical: Climate change gets a nod (invariably) at climate change jamborees or when invoking business opportunities in the so-called Green Economy.

The rationale for Business-as-Usual is the loss of national competitiveness. In the absence of an enforceable global agreement, no economically significant country is prepared to bind only itself to effective carbon reducing measures. Unrestrained business is thereby guaranteed. Hence: fracking, tar sands and the proliferation of other exotic carbon-spewing energy sources. Hence, too, the runaway expansion of coal production, the primary source of CO2. South Africa is far from unique in this respect. Coal is being developed as fast as possible wherever it is found in the world, regardless of its unquestioned additional destruction of human health and the general environment, including water abuse. Indeed, governments around the world are spending vast amounts of money providing various incentives for the exploration and development of fossil fuels. A recent study of only the G20 nations found that some $88 billion a year is being spent just on fossil fuel exploration, five years after pledging to phase out such subsidies.

The result of all this is an emissions gap that continues to grow. Over 90 countries have pledged themselves to cut their CO2 emissions to keep within the Emissions Budget scientists have calculated to be consistent with limiting the temperature increase to 2oC. The UN publishes annual Gap Reports that measure the difference between the emissions required to meet the 2oC threshold and actual global practice. (The UN has quietly ignored its agreement to consider reducing the maximum temperature to 1.5 oC.) Since 1990, the base year for emissions set by the Kyoto Protocol, global emissions have grown more than 45% – and this notwithstanding the Great Recession that has engulfed the world since 2008.

The world, in other words, is in deep trouble. And it’s getting worse. Deadlines keep being postponed as pledged reductions become actual increases. The Kyoto Protocol deadline of 31 December 2012 has been pushed back to 2020. The Gap Reports are now addressing 2025, 2030 “and beyond”. The just published 2014 Gap Report finds that, even if each country were to achieve the pledge it is currently pursuing and “apply the current set of accounting rules, which are lenient”, emissions in 2020 would be 8% above the 2010 level. Projecting onto 2030, the gap becomes the equivalent of a whopping third of total current emissions. The gap between South Africa’s pledges and practice stands at a median of 13.67% and a maximum of 47.86%.

The future is not yet lost

Renewable energy

Renewable energy is increasingly – though still slowly and contradictorily – forcing its way into people’s consciousness, public debate and actual practice, despite the power of the entrenched economic interests that form the Mineral Energy Complex in all countries rich in carbon-based minerals and energy.

These changes are to be seen in the significant part being given to renewable energy in the energy mix of various countries. Germany, the largest European economy, is setting the pace worldwide. In contrast to South Africa with its imposed renewable energy cap and an underwhelming target of 9-10% of total energy by 2030, Germany, with 23% of its electricity coming from renewable energy in 2013, is planning to reach 80% by 2050. On 23 May 2014, it set a new record by generating 74% of its power needs from renewable energy. All this is consistent with the German government’s commitment – crucially supported by 84% of the population – to get to 100% renewable energy “as quickly as possible”.

Consistent with these impressive targets – and, indeed, making them possible – is the sharp global drop in the cost of renewable energy. The price of wind energy in South Africa, for instance, has fallen by 42% in a few years and is now 66c/kWh, with Solar PV being 88c. Electricity from the still being built coal-fired Medupi & Kusile are estimated to be R1.05/kWh.

‘This changes everything’

There have been striking political developments amongst a growing section of people actively concerned about climate change. The 20-year failure by world leaders to address climate change, along with the economic, social and political crises within global capitalism, is mobilising people in increasing numbers. This is coalescing into a consensus that directly links climate change to capitalism and capitalism to climate change. The process is slow and the consensus is weak on detail. But it’s a globally growing consensus, as demonstrated by: the walkout of large sections of civil society at last year’s COP 19; the large demonstrations around the world during the New York Climate Change Summit in September this year; and the plans being made for the largest ever demonstrations in the build-up to COP 21 in Paris in 2015. The final outcome is, of course, far from assured.

Looking back to 2011, there is ample occasion for alarm; but pregnant within this alarm is hope, as more and more people come to recognise that the struggle against climate change is unavoidably a struggle against capitalism, and that a struggle against capitalism is at once a struggle against climate change. This combination “changes everything”, as Naomi Klein puts it, in her best-selling book of the same title. DM

This is an edited version of a chapter from a forthcoming Alternative Information & Development Centre (AIDC) booklet.

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