The World at 1℃ — April ‘17
A monthly summary of climate impacts, insights and resistance
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“There are no realistic solutions to the current planetary crisis. None. A peaceful, just-in-time transition toward low-carbon, rationally regulated state capitalism is about as likely as a spontaneous connecting-the-dots of neighborhood anarchism across the world. Simply extrapolating from the present balance of forces, one most likely arrives at an equilibrium of triaged barbarism, founded on the extinction of the poorest part of humanity.”
— Mike Davis, The Necessary Eloquence of Protest.
We need to change the balance of forces.
Shocking All Over the World
For many of us, the facts and figures of climate change mean very little by way of tangible threat. We know in our heart of hearts that something is amiss, we share photos of sea ice loss, we support campaigns to stop deforestation, we (try to) buy and use less plastic, and we profess solidarity for people when their homes are destroyed by freakishly strong storms. But many of us, particularly those of us living in the imperial heartlands of Fortress Europe and Trump’s USA, do not know what climate change really means.
Yet, as this bulletin attests to, the changes to the earth’s climate are resulting in unimaginable loss and trauma for real human beings — people like you — around the world, today.
In India, a heat wave has set in across Rajasthan, Vidarbha and Odisha, with the city of Balangir registering a maximum temperature of 44.2℃. Killer heat waves are becoming more common in South Asia: over 4,000 people have died as a result in India over recent years. This year in the Pakistani district of Tharparkar, already 113 children and 63 elderly people have died as a result of extreme heat. With extreme heat setting in so early, and with weak monsoons forecasted, South Asia is bracing for a summer of sweltering heat. Farmers from the Cauvery delta — India’s rice bowl — have been protesting in New Delhi for weeks, carrying human skulls of farmers forced to commit suicide amid the drought. The water available in India’s largest reservoirs is down to a third of their storage capacity; in reservoirs in India’s most arid regions, the available water is far lower.
Colombia looked on in horror as over 300 people, including nearly 100 children, were killed as mudslides obliterated the important cultural hub of Mocoa. Only days later, mudslides in Manizales would cause dozens of deaths after the city received a month’s worth of rain in a matter of hours. Dozens of hillsides gave way in a tragic culmination of poor planning and extreme weather. Elsewhere in the country, in Choco, three people were killed after major flooding.
Mudslides are not a uniquely Colombian phenomenon. In Sabah, Malaysia, 2 separate mudslides killed at least 11 people — with deforestation identified as major contributor to the conditions of tragedy.
In Peru, over 1 million people were affected by an unprecedented level of flooding, landslides and heavy rains, leaving 24 out of the country’s 25 departments grappling with the crisis. Over 14,000 people were displaced, many permanently, as torrential rains lashed the Dominican Republic. In Turkey, a violent storm killed killed four, and major flooding has wracked North Carolina. Rising waters are threatening China’s booming cities.
Elsewhere it is not too much water that is the threat, but too little. The horrific multi-year drought afflicting much of Eastern Africa endures — nearly eleven million people in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia are facing severe food shortages. In this region, climate change is acting as an injustice multiplier, colliding with poverty, chronic malnutrition, drought, conflict, and neglect to concoct a humanitarian catastrophe. The United Nations refugee agency has warned of the risk of “mass deaths” from mass starvation unless action is taken. But calls for support and solidarity have been met with indifference.
Guatemala had to declare a state of emergency after heavy forest fires tore through the Maya Biosphere Reserve, which brings together a number of protected areas. Notably, community-managed forests in the reserve have been far more resilient to the fires.
Even rich, technologically advanced countries are finding it hard to cope with current levels of warming, as demonstrated by recent flooding in Quebec, where a local state of emergency had to be declared, or by the 6 people dead and $1 billion of damages left behind by Cyclone Debbie in New South Wales and Queensland.
Of course, impacts felt all around the world are not felt equally all around the world. Echoing what climate justice movements have known for as long as they have been climate justice movements, a new report has outlined that the impacts of climate change on mental health are disproportionately felt by people of colour. Another report stated the painfully obvious: there has been no let up in climate change. It is getting worse.
In the near future, climate chaos is expected to drive large scale migration from coastal areas to inland metropolitan centres, adding further stresses to already difficult resource management situations. Communities across Western Canada and the United States will also face the increasing threat of catastrophic wildfires.
Dividing by Zero: The Impossible Reality of Climate Arithmetic
All number are abstractions, but the arithmetic of climate change seems particularly abstract, particularly impossible to understand. No sooner have we ascribed importance to one figure than we have to abandon it altogether as we go rushing past into an ever more unrecognisable world.
For example, thanks to the work of Bill McKibben and his students, many people in the English speaking world remember the figure of 350 (parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere) as a relatively “safe” level to which we should aim to return. The next milestone was 400 ppm, but before it could be cemented in the collective consciousness, that figure has been rendered meaningless — an historical artefact serving as an example of what we have lost. The next threshold, 410 ppm, has already been breached for the first time in human history last month. One of the simplest but most challenging figures is this: the current civilizational epoch, this modernity, has just four years left on the clock before it spends the remaining carbon budget for keeping warming below 1.5℃.
Of the 17 hottest years on record, 16 have occurred this century. There hasn’t been a record cold year since 1911. In the Alps, glaciers have lost half their volume since 1900; Austria’s glaciers are now receding by an average of 14 metres a year. Sea level rise is also mounting, with California facing a 3 metre rise by the end of the century. 90 percent of the world’s fisheries are either fully depleted or are facing collapse, according to the UN.
Perhaps most worrying of all is that our arithmetic may be wrong: new studies have found that widely-used climate models underestimate the Earth’s sensitivity to CO2 changes. Our expectations of the worst may end up being rather optimistic after all.
The numbers behind the notorious El Niño phenomenon also seem to be adding up to destruction. Following a record breaking cycle last year, it was expected that ocean waters would cool off this year and even head into temperatures associated with La Niña, which often follows. But they haven’t — instead the waters off the coast of Peru and Ecuador are between 3 and 4℃ warmer than normal, prompting concerns that we could be facing another ruinous el Niño event later this year.
With El Niño events expected to become more fierce as the world warms, we’re going to see more and more records being obliterated. Already this year the hurricane season has had an early start with Tropical Storm Arlene arriving to register as only the second tropical storm ever recorded in April.
Another area of the climate crisis where the math doesn’t make sense for a liveable and just world is in the realm of climate finance. While estimates of need vary, they are all several orders of magnitude greater than what is on offer from rich governments. The amount on offer is itself a much greater sum than that which actually finds it way to projects on the ground — just last month the Green Climate fund was called ‘a laughing stock’ by developing countries when a $100 million project to help drought-stricken farmers in Ethiopia was rejected, although the Board did approve 8 projects worth $755 million.
One of the ecosystems most crucial to the safe survival of our world is permafrost. The frozen permafrost of the world contains between 1.2 to 1.4 trillion tons of carbon that have been locked underground over millions of years. Alarmingly, that permafrost is thawing at a rate 20% faster than previously thought, meaning that Arctic soils are now becoming net emitters of greenhouse gas, producing dramatic explosions of methane into the atmosphere.
In the late 1800s, permafrost covered about 17 million square kilometers of the Northern Hemisphere; since then, global warming has reduced that area by 2 million square kilometres. This would be troubling in and of itself, but new research suggests present temperatures alone are enough to push permafrost coverage back to 12.5 million square kilometers this Century.” Such a retreat of permafrost could trigger a feedback loop: where the methane emitted by melting permafrost contributes to further global warming which contributes to further melting.
Conversely, if as a global community we are able to rise to the challenge and limit temperature increases to 1.5℃ or less, we would save major amounts of permafrost, and avoid activating such a dangerous feedback loop.
The signs, however, are not good. As well as permafrost loss, other ice regions are melting rapidly and irreversibly. Harrowing time-lapse images illustrate how glaciers are rapidly melting; last year was the first time the annual mean temperature was above zero in the Norwegian Arctic island of Svalbard. The Arctic Ocean is also undergoing a process of “Atlantification” according to scientists, with major shifts observed in the ocean basin.
The Arctic has now gone six months in a row seeing near-record or record-low sea ice. Sea ice was missing from a 452,000 square mile area that is usually covered in March — an area equivalent to Scandinavia. Temperatures have been up to 13F above normal along Russia’s coastal seas. Such trends are unprecedented over 40 years of satellite data.
According to the New Arctic Council, the Ocean “could be largely free of sea ice in summer as early as late 2030s. Research suggests that the cumulative cost of these changes unfolding in the Arctic could range from $7–90 trillion by 2100. The rapid rate of Arctic melt has prompted fresh fears that sea level rise will occur at double the rate currently predicted by the IPCC.
Such dramatic changes are paralleled in Antarctica. In January this year an iceberg the size of Manhattan split off the Pine Island Glacier which is retreating and shrinking at alarming speed (and possibly unavoidably). While scientists have long worried about ice shelf collapse further destabilising Antarctica’s glaciers, new research suggests that surface melt across the continent is playing a much more critical role than previously thought. With the discovery of hundreds of drainage systems, the fear is that surface meltwater may be channeled to vulnerable parts of ice shelves, leading to their collapse into the ocean, as with the Larsen B Ice Shelf in 2002.
Health and Safety
Perhaps it should be obvious that as the planet runs a fever, the health of all life forms would be in jeopardy: the heat in Pakistan this month reached levels at which human body is unable to function. As such, anyone concerned about healthy lifestyles or indeed even basic healthcare provision should be deeply concerned about climate change. Studies show that El Niño, which is becoming fiercer as a result of climate change, shifts the prevalence of cholera outbreaks from Southern to East Africa.
The spread of diseases like cholera into areas that are already under serious water stress like Kenya, where some districts of Nairobi receive just 12 hours of water a week, or Somalia where some regions haven’t seen rain in 2 years, is often fatal. Some communities, such as that of Tierra Blanca in El Salvador, are experiencing a “silent massacre” as new forms of kidney disease, caused by chronic dehydration, leave behind scenes resembling a battlefield.
In Brazil the Chagas disease is spreading as pathogenic insects move from deforested areas into human settlements. Unsurprisingly, a new study has shown that deforestation reduction could be tied to improvements in the health of infants. Forests are important for human health as well as for the overall health of the planet.
The increasing prevalence of diseases such as cholera is not only a consequence of climate change, it is actually a consequence of the causes of climate change. For example, Australia’s rising air pollution, a result of burning coal, causes an estimated $11–24 billion damage to health annually. Similarly, all fossil fuel extraction has a heavy toll on health: even eighteen months on, Krenak communities in Brazil are still struggling to recover from a deadly mining tailings dam spill perpetrated by Vale and BHP Billiton.
Is This Still Home?
The changes disfiguring our planet are so profound that we have to begin asking ourselves — is a 1℃ warmer world still a recognisable home? The transformations underway are of a magnitude most humans rarely contemplate: the California wildflower superblooms, triggered by a changing climate, can be seen from space. Similarly, Japan’s early cherry blossoms signal the warmest climate in more than 1,000 years.
An astronaut looking down on the earth from space will soon add a diminishing Nile River to the list of observable changes, after Ethiopia began building a mega-dam that could reduce the Nile’s freshwater flow to by 25% (something that will have devastating knock on effects which one will not need to be in space to notice). They would also notice that on the other side of the globe, in Canada, the 150 metre-wide Slims river disappeared over the course of just 4 days after intense glacial melt redirected the river’s source.
Meanwhile the vast non-human structure of the Great Barrier Reef has entered a ‘terminal stage’. It’s not the only reef that scientists are worried about: mass bleaching has been observed in numerous other Pacific reefs as indicated by NOAA, and anxieties are now running high in the Indian Ocean island chain of the Seychelles, which is currently seeing mass bleaching among many corals.
“Only 3–5% of corals remain alive at a widespread number of locations following 2016’s extreme ocean warming. Experts suggest that many Seychelles reefs will require about 15 years to recover. Unfortunately, human-forced global warming through fossil fuel burning is likely to deliver continued bleaching stress to the Seychelles and a rather wide range of other reefs during multiple years to follow.”
In the United States, reef loss in Hawaii and the Caribbean has stunned researchers; impacts not expected to occur until 2100 are already being observed.
The vast array of other species with whom we share the planet already seem to be answering the question “is this still home?” in deed if not in word — many of them are on the move in the biggest mass migration in over 25,000 years, “radically reshaping the pattern of human wellbeing… and potentially leading to substantial conflict” according to a group of scientific institutions.
False Solutions and Real Solutions
With a world failing to reduce emissions and transform our dominant economic system, policymakers are being tempted by (and cautioned against) a potential quick-fix scheme: negative emissions technologies.
Negative emissions technologies are basically approaches to draw down, or “suck”, carbon out of the atmosphere and store it, mostly underground. One of the most widely touted techniques is called carbon capture and storage (CCS).
According to industry estimates, if we want to stay below the guardrail of 2℃, we have 35 years to build a carbon capture and storage industry 2–4 times larger than today’s oil industry. However, when techno-fixes seem too good to be true, they usually are: CCS is a largely untested technology and the focus on drawdown creates a perverse incentive to postpone real climate action. After all, if we can draw it down and then store it, we don’t need to stop digging it up and burning it.
A variation of CSS known as BECCS (bioenergy with carbon capture and storage) is envisioned as a solution, whereby crops and biomass are burned as fuel, and the resulting CO2 is compressed and held underground. Experiments are underway in Illinois, USA, to grow corn, produce ethanol (a corn-based fuel), convert the by-product of carbon into liquid form, and then store that liquid underground.
While the CCS storage technology is expensive and may never work at scale, the bioenergy aspect poses an additional threat. Creating enough BECCS to address climate change could require converting hundreds of millions of hectares of land to biomass, threatening food security in an increasingly hungry world. In the words of climate scientist Glen Peters, “it’s hard to see a business model and pathway that would make negative emissions technologies feasible at scale.”
At the same time, another technological “solution” is coming closer to reality as a group of Harvard scientists are planning a small-scale geoengineering experiment to redirect the sun’s rays back into space. But models suggest that this approach may disastrously disrupt global water cycles and rainfall patterns.
The enthusiastic pursuit of negative emissions technologies risks turning into a distraction from more urgent tasks, namely transforming our energy sector and managing the land sector appropriately. By urgently halting deforestation and by preserving and restoring ecosystems we can pull down emissions, and store carbon safely in natural greenhouse gas sinks (like rainforests and peatlands).
Renewable energy continues to hold great promise for displacing fossil fuels. In the UK, climate change campaigners celebrated the first day of power generation without coal since the Industrial Revolution. The first subsidy-free offshore wind farms have been announced in Germany, while the design of Africa’s largest solar plant is underway. China’s wind and solar industry is forecasted to expand fivefold by 2030. As long as old colonial dynamics aren’t reinforced, and the honouring of human rights is enshrined in renewable electricity projects, the energy sector across Africa could be totally transformed for the benefit of her peoples.
One result of the boom in renewables is that oil companies are stumbling — an analysis conducted by the Wall Street Journal found that Exxon, Shell, Chevron and BP didn’t make enough money in 2016 to cover their costs, landing them in serious financial troubles and meaning that the oil giants aren’t able to expand. In EU, falling electricity demand and rising renewable power is causing fossil fuel power stations to hemorrhage millions in earnings, although in the Balkans several new coal-fired power plants are in the pipeline. All in all, the industry looks doomed as most asset managers now realise the risk of climate change to their investments — although placing our hope for salvation in ‘the market’ remains as unwise as ever.
It seems that, sooner or later, a change is gonna come. As the climate crisis becomes more and more apparent, action will come in an increasing array of forms and from a diversity of quarters. Given this urgency, it will become harder to see progressive policy from regressive policy, so one thing climate champions must always remember is to keep firm in their commitment to principles of justice.
“Nuestra lucha es por la vida y el mal gobierno oferta muerte como futuro.”
— Comité Clandestino Revolucionario Indígena-Comandancia General del Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, Cuarta Declaración de la Selva Lacandona.
In Brazil, Temer’s bad, illegitimate government continues to run roughshod over environmental regulation, halving its environmental budget despite rising deforestation in the Amazon (since 2016, an area of forest the size of France has been felled). Brazilian MPs have also voted to further slash protections for 1 million hectares of rainforest, seriously undermining the longevity of the “Earth’s lungs. Major battles over land rights and access continue across the Amazon; on the 30th April, thirteen members of the Indigenous Gamela community were hospitalised after being attacked by farmers in a brutal land dispute.
In Canada, Justin Trudeau is still hard at work pushing for more and larger pipelines to carry oil out of Alberta’s tar sands; in Australia, the government is still backing plans for the largest coal mine on the planet, with the potential to annually generate nearly four times the emissions of the Philippines. That mine — the Adani coal mine — is due to export low-quality, high-ash coal to India. It was recently granted a license for unlimited groundwater access for 60 years. Adani, the company hoping to complete the project, have also been under fire recently for (allegedly) polluting wetlands at an existing port in Queensland.
Meanwhile, in the United States Trump’s government continues its full-frontal assault on dignity, derailing agreements to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, issuing executive orders to reduce regulations for fossil fuel companies, cutting environmental budgets, and scrubbing climate change from the EPA website. You name it, Trump’s doing it.
Mike Cox, a veteran staff member at the Environmental Protection Agency resigned from his position, with a devastating letter:
“The policies this Administration is advancing are contrary to what the majority of the American people, who pay our salaries, want EPA to accomplish, which are to ensure the air their children breath is safe; the land they live, play, and hunt on to be free of toxic chemicals; and the water they drink, the lakes they swim in, and the rivers they fish in to be clean.”
The impacts of the EPA’s budgetary cuts and culling will primarily be felt in those communities most affected by pollution. A context of corporate impunity for environmental crimes will be extended; just recently, a court ruled that oil giant ExxonMobil had violated the US Clean Air Act 16,386 times between 2005 and 2013 in one area of Texas.
Government collusion with multinational corporations is not just apparent in the United States: new evidence has emerged linking oil majors Shell and ENI to corrupt payments across Nigeria, while the Jigawa State government recently turned over 12,000 hectares of land to a Chinese firm, threatening the livelihoods of 150,000 people.
Victories, Solutions and Ambitions
In Europe, resistance mounts against the Southern European Gas Corridor, a massive planned gas infrastructure project. Campaigners have already pressured European utilities to commit to build no new coal plants after 2020, and plans to expand an East German coal mine have been scrapped. Communities in England continue to bravely resist fracking, and protesters recently shut down UK’s largest opencast coal mine.
Also in the UK, the Labour Party announced that should it win the upcoming General Election it would move to ban fracking and invest in a just transition for workers and communities. The just transition is no longer just a soundbite: last year the US solar created more new jobs (51,000) than there are coal miners still working in the US (50,200). On April 30th, renewables provided 85% of Germany’s power, and South Australia is set to source 80% of its energy from wind and solar by 2021.
The Next Systems Project, an initiative to ignite conversations about the future direction of our economy, has proposed one bold idea: a public takeover of the oil and gas industry in order to keep fossil fuels in the ground and drive investment in the transition. Another economist Kate Raworth has designed a series of useful concepts to haul our economic thinking out of the 19th century and into the 21st.
In Colombia, important new alliances are building between Indigenous and peasant communities, and thanks to formidable pressure of communities which resulted in a resounding referendum decision, work on the AngloGold Ashanti mine ‘La Colosa’ has halted. On the other side of the globe, the Philippines extended its ban on open-pit mining, though the payback from mining interests was to have interim Environment Secretary Regina Lopez denied her confirmation of position.
In Mexico’s Quintana Roo region, Indigenous communities have managed to block the use of GM soya, while in Oklahoma, Kiowa communities have won a major victory, as courts order a natural gas pipeline operator to remove pipeline located on ancestral lands. In Argentina, Indigenous communities are walking hundreds of kilometres to resist a new land code, and the province of Entre Ríos has banned fracking.
Recent announcements by Tesla claiming that the company will begin producing electric long-haul vehicles this year has sent shockwaves through combustion engine manufacturers and investors, who have now downgraded stocks of diesel engine producers. Elsewhere in the world of investment, AXA Investment Managers, one of the world’s largest financial institutions, has divested €177m of coal assets, while a Australia’s export credit agency is under pressure not to fund the Resgen Boikarabelo mine in South Africa
A South African court struck down a nuclear energy arrangement between the Russian and South African governments, while the Ghanaian government is giving solar energy a boost in an effort to address the country’s energy crisis.
April saw two important mass marches on Washington as the unprecedented March for Science brought out strong showings of both western scientists and indigenous scientists while the People’s Climate March turned out 300,000 people onto the streets for Trump’s 100th day in office. At the same time, Senators launched a 100% Clean Energy Bill with the goal of phasing out fossil fuels by 2050 (several decades too late).
Commendations, Obituaries and Threats
The struggle against destruction and oblivion is made up of countless brave individuals who make sacrifice after sacrifice in defence of life. They should be celebrated.
We commend all the winners of the Goldman Prize, including Rodrigo Tot, a Mayan leader who has defied death threats and fought against mining in Guatemala for over 4 decades, and Prafulla Samantara, who helped defeat bauxite mining on Dongria Kondh lands in India. We also celebrate the women such as Carolina Amaya who were the driving force behind the incredible triumph over the mining industry in El Salvador.
The price our comrades pay for their courageous acts is often heavy. In Thailand, Karen forest dwellers have been expelled from their ancestral forests, and seen leaders kidnapped and killed. 8 environmental defenders in Tanzania have been convicted on charges of trespass due to their efforts to raise awareness over uranium mining. In Argentina, the Wichi leader Agustín Santillán is detained after having demanded state assistance and medical attention for his community in the wake of flooding. In Chile, social leader Rodrigo Mundaca has suffered threats, and in Brazil 13 indigenous Gamela have been hospitalised following a machete attack which left one man with no hands.
And though our words can do nothing for them now, we must also speak out against the wave of murders of social leaders taking place in Colombia, including that of Gerson Acosta, an indigenous land defender assassinated on 19th April in Cauca. All too painfully, their deaths are not new: the 24th April marked the 18th anniversary of Lucindo Domicó, a indigenous Embera man slain like too many others from his community for their resistance to the construction of the Urra dam by Swedish multinational Skanska.