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Tipping point: How many climate code reds does humanity need?


Dr Roland Ngam is programme manager for climate justice and socioecological transformation at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Southern Africa. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

We have had hundreds, if not thousands, of warnings on the climate crisis that have gone in one ear and out the other, with zero impact on policies. And if you don’t believe the science, nature has served us a growing series of flashing red lights, from Texas to California to Madagascar to Turkey to Greece to Germany to Belgium to Cape Town and Lagos.

A code red for humanity. That is how UN Secretary-General António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres described the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), which was published on 9 August 2021. US President Joe Biden’s climate czar said that the report underscores the “overwhelming urgency of this moment”.

The IPCC’s AR6 was prepared by 234 scientists from 66 countries. They pored over 14,000 scientific papers before confirming the following: “It is ‘unequivocal’ that human influence has warmed the global climate system.”

The AR6 has enjoyed blanket wall-to-wall coverage in all the major news outlets around the world, from Chile to New Zealand and from the US to Japan — maybe a sign that people are finally ready to consume primetime news about the environment.

Key headline statements of the AR6 include the following:

  1. Anthropogenic climate change is already affecting many weather events across the globe;
  2. Six different scenarios studied by the panel all confirm that global surface temperatures will continue to increase until at least mid-century;
  3. Global warming will cause changes in climate systems to increase. Here we are talking about increases in the frequency and intensity of hot extremes, marine heatwaves, heavy precipitations, agricultural and ecological droughts, intense tropical cyclones and reduction in Arctic sea ice, snow cover and permafrost;
  4. Under most scenarios studied, increased CO2 emissions will cause ocean and land carbon sinks to become less effective; and
  5. Every region is projected to increasingly experience multiple concurrent changes in climatic impact drivers. These climatic impact drivers will grow in intensity with increases in global surface temperature.

Concerning Africa specifically, the AR6 states that “the rate of surface temperature increase has generally been more rapid in Africa than the global average, with human-induced climate change being the dominant driver (high confidence)”.

Another alarming reminder for Africa is that “relative sea-level rise is likely, to virtually certain, to continue around Africa, contributing to increases in the frequency and severity of coastal flooding in low-lying areas to coastal erosion and along most sandy coasts (high confidence)”.

The city of Lagos was exposed to this scenario a few weeks ago after heavy rains left parts of Nigeria’s economic capital underwater. The entire city may be completely underwater in another couple of decades.

Although the IPCC’s work is finally getting the attention it deserves, I cannot help but wonder: how many code reds do we need? How many times do we need to be reminded that we have reached the tipping point?

I don’t know about you, but I do not feel very optimistic about the major economies’ ability to adopt bold decisive measures to combat global warming.

I feel even less optimistic about African leaders’ ability to hold them to account. In fact, how many of them have issued a statement following the publication of the AR6?

We have had hundreds, if not thousands, of warnings that have gone in one ear and out the other, with zero impact on policies.

Earlier this year, the United Nations Environmental Programme’s Making Peace with Nature report reminded us that environmental changes are bringing heavy economic costs and millions of premature deaths annually and we need to urgently tackle these problems together to ensure the wellbeing of current and future generations.

In May 2021, the International Energy Agency’s Net Zero by 2050 report indicated that “the energy sector is the source of around three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions today”. They added unequivocally that capping emissions below 1.5°C “calls for nothing less than a complete transformation of how we produce, transport and consume energy”.

As if to lend a helping hand to the scientists, lest we keep pretending that all is fine in the best of all possible worlds, nature has served us a growing series of flashing red lights, foreseeable unfortunate events if you will.

In February, a cold snap froze and collapsed Texas’ power lines, leaving millions without electricity for weeks. Parts of the Lone Star State in the US are still without electricity.

This year has seen another round of costly and deadly fires all across the globe (South Africa, Turkey, Greece, the US, Russia, etc). The fires have consumed libraries (Cape Town), entire cities (Dixie, California), and forests and towns (Turkey, Greece).

An unprecedented drought has scorched southern Madagascar and left millions of people relying on the UN for food. To survive, hungry and desperate families have been eating wild cactus fruit and boiling shoe leather.

A heat dome in the Pacific Northwest (North America) caused temperatures to surge to the mid-40s and claimed several dozen lives.

Only a few weeks ago, Germany and Belgium suffered unprecedented floods that claimed more than 300 lives and wiped out entire villages. Witnesses described a biblical event almost, with walls of water as high as 10 metres slamming into their homes. Germany alone needs €30-billion to rebuild the homes and services destroyed during the flood. The event has left Armin Laschet, the First Minister of the most affected state, North Rhine-Westphalia (and Angela Merkel’s putative successor), reeling in the polls.

The Colorado River has dipped to unprecedented lows after parts of the US-Mexico border area suffered their driest 12-month period on record. This is certain to devastate farming in the area as well as tourism, which usually attracts up to four million visitors per year to the area.

That said, there is a glimmer of hope beyond all the gloom. Almost all countries have signed up to the 2015 Paris climate accord. This means that almost all countries on the planet agree that we need to cut CO2 emissions by at least 50% compared with 2010 levels in order to limit global heating to 2°C.

Now, to the more important part of translating those promises into actions. OBP/DM


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All Comments 7

  • Unfortunately we need fossil fuels for our survival. They’re like water or oxygen for us. Energy is not a nice to have, it’s critical.

    So, can renewables ever replace fossil fuels, and in time to save the planet from global warming?

    And do we have the resources to retool our entire energy and transport systems?

    Looks to me that the answer to both questions is no and that’s why we are making such poor progress on this issue.

    Also, I don’t think our models encapsulate all feedback loops – how can they, the climate system is vastly complex – and our current experience puts us pretty much on the worst case scenario. It could easily be that we are already too late.

    And so we will blunder on to likely disaster. By the way, nobody seems to factor in that we will run out of fossil fuels this century and that will easily be as, if not more devastating than climate change.

    Finally of course there’s the matter of can renewables ever give us enough reliable energy to run and maintain our industrial societies? And again the answer to this one looks like a no.

  • We need to be careful not to be trapped in the nirvana fallacy – in other words to do nothing because we cannot see a perfectly clear way forward. There are a number of technologies that are starting to mature that give hope. In fact their implementation is expected to follow an exponential growth curve so they could make changes quicker than anticipated. RethinkX released a report this last week (Rethinking Climate Change) where they show that we could get carbon neutral by 2035 using existing technologies if the right policies are put in place. This would in fact save money – not cost extra. The report is well worthwhile reading.

  • Millions of South Africans have a direct influence on the fossil fuel industry via our investments, if we choose to use it, and stop investing in these companies.

  • A noble sentiment but we would do well to remember that SA produces only 1% of the world’s CO2. Is it worth disrupting our fragile economy with radical change that produces unforeseen casualties and consequences? I don’t think so, especially where China is apparently close to 30% as of 2019 levels. Yes, we need a deliberate turn away from unsustainable fossil fuels but a great many people still rely on this industry to put food on the table. An incremental approach that includes all possible alternatives, including nuclear, would be the wise choice. Any such national approach will be decidedly implausible if it comes from mere lobby groups, politicians, or zealous teenagers. It must come from the science and engineering sector ONLY.

    The elephant in the room is, of course, political will or the lack thereof in this case. Politicians of the ruling party in this country are not exactly straight arrows and require certain ‘monetary incentives’ to bring about change for the greater good of all. I doubt any report, no matter how widely spread, will mention this particular stumbling block.

  • Time to limit population increases. Or is it just too politically incorrect to mention? Political Correctness versus Survival Which do YOU chose? Anyone with more than two children is suicidal.

  • Most of Africa will brush this off as another one of the West’s fallacies to keep Africa back. Wisdom has never been Africa’s strong point, just look at all the failed states.

  • Sign a petition. THE HEALTHY PLANET, HEALTHY PEOPLE PETITION. Access the petition addressed to world leaders at the two upcoming COP conferences. It is accompanied by information and suggestions for action. A useful resource for educators and families.

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