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Climate Chaos and Our Own Responsibilities

On the last day of the UN Climate Change (June 17-27, 2019) meeting in Bonn the key IPCC report on 1.5 C was blocked from further discussion by Saudi Arabia and an unlikely set of allies: the US, Iran and Russia. The report as the saying goes has been deep-sixed meriting only a five-para watered down waffle at the end of the agreement, so what next?

If the Paris Agreement was transformative in its democratic innovation, its voluntary aspects opened up the possibility of countries failing to meet their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) targets. These are at the heart of the Paris agreement and their voluntary nature invites democratic engagement — the example of Greta Thunberg and her mushrooming support comes to mind. Even more necessary after the Bonn meeting, democratic pressure on governments is vital to counter the fossil fuel lobby.

Also the climate change debate is framed around two temperature figures, the famous 1.5 C and 2 C scenarios. We need a rallying cry but the fact is temperature is an amorphous goal. We cannot ask countries to reduce temperature by a certain number because the whole earth is involved and it is beyond individual capacities; hence the target NDCs, the rather dull but practical numbers.

When the UN sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change first released its famous (now banished) 1.5 C report last October, it set off alarms. Comprising the work of hundreds of the world’s leading climate scientists, it predicted a grim future and a narrowing window of action. It examined a 1.5 C rise in mean global temperature from preindustrial levels, comparing it with a 2 C rise. We are already experiencing the effects of being 1 degree above, and according to the report should reach the 1.5 C level as early as 2040. The 1.5 C and 2 C figures result from simulation exercises, although by undoubtedly respected and expert scientists.

At 1.5 C above, the report states, 70-90 percent of the world’s sea corals would be lost (with a 2C rise 99 percent would be gone); the Arctic sea ice would be in fast retreat threatening polar bears and raising sea levels; and with higher ocean temperatures we can expect worsened severe storms, rain and flooding.

There is worse for at a 2C rise the cycle becomes self-sustaining, meaning a runaway feedback loop cycle. Clearly the Paris agreement, holding temperature increase to 2C, is no longer viable if we are not to leave behind a raging planet to our children and grandchildren.

Meanwhile, Paris itself is facing a heat wave with temperatures expected to exceed 40 C (104 F) and national records for June temperatures likely to be shattered. Europe as a whole is experiencing the same, although it made little difference to the dissenters in sweltering Bonn. While climate change is usually not blamed directly for short-interval, extreme weather events, a warmer earth is still likely to be an exacerbation, and scientists might well be able to prove a closer link as research in this area matures. At the very least, it makes intuitive sense.

It has already been hot further north. Greenland had temperatures 40 F above normal in mid-June. It caused an early, unprecedented ice melt when it is more usual for big melts to occur in July. On just one day (June 13, 2019), scientists estimated a melt of 2 billion tons. If Greenland experienced a record melt in 2012, then 2019 could be a year that might surpass it. The problem of high temperatures and above normal ice melt spans the Arctic. Moreover in the Antarctic, the coldest regions, long believed to be immune, are beginning to show signs of melting.

Foreshadowing the 1.5 C report, the expected consequence has been a rise in ocean levels. These are already 7 centimeters (about 3 inches) higher than in the 1990s (keyfinding 1) of the Climate Science Special Report. Human-caused climate change is considered a major culprit. The reported rise is accelerating and is now at a rate of 3.9 millimeters a year, or about an inch every 6 years.

Coastal land flooding and loss is no longer just a problem faced by The Maldives in the Indian Ocean, or some Pacific Islands. Low-lying cities like Norfolk, Virginia have begun to flood at high-tide. This nuisance tidal flooding is expected to increase 5 to 10 fold (keyfinding 4).

Changing weather patterns also have other consequences. In California, large fires now burn twice the area they did 50 years ago, and are expected to be tripling that same area by 2050. Future projections point to both larger fires and a longer fire season. Some consequences run counter to presumptions and surprise us. Who would have expected a heat wave in Canada to kill more than 90 people in 2018? It is not the only example. The UK suffered debilitating summer heat in 2018 and 2017, and a heat wave engulfed southern Europe in 2018, where Portugal and Greece were also hit somewhat unusually by wildfires. The same in the Southern Hemisphere, for in Australia the wildfire season now starts earlier, is longer and more devastating. In Spain, a 10,000 acre fire is raging right now, caused by extreme heat self-igniting a manure pile.

The U.S. ‘National Climate Assessment’ last November did not mince words when its overview concluded: “The evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming … the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country.” The assessment is mandated by Congress and affirmed by science agencies of the government.

President Trump, who religiously opposes climate change believing it to be a natural phenomenon that will reverse itself also naturally, had a brief response: “I do not believe it.” About the report’s estimated economic impacts, Sarah Sanders, his then press secretary, claimed the report was “not based on facts.” The “facts” on which the Trump administration reached its conclusions have not been released. The source of these quotes, Science, is the principal organ of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It has labeled the gap between action and what is demanded by the worsening climate-fueled weather disasters as the policy ‘breakdown of the year’. About the current administration, one prominent scientist, the president of the Woods Hole Research Center, was moved to remark, “They’re in la-la-land.”

Sadly this la-la-land is not harmless because the US changing tack on climate action gives other countries leeway to do the same. One example: Brazil’s new (this year) right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, has promised to open more of the Amazon rain forest for development reversing its CO2 capture into more CO2 emission. CO2 happens to be the most sensitive gas to the heat radiation wavelengths reflected from earth, returning more back.

So we have rising temperatures and scientifically ignorant politicians but all is not lost. It is quite likely we will fall short of the 1.5 C target. Yet the plain fact is there will not be a clash of cymbals and the world will not end with a bang. All that will happen will be a greater reliance on carbon capture directly with its fast developing technology, or indirectly through means such as afforestation. In short, to stop hothouse earth, we have to start removing CO2 from the air.

Carbon capture from the atmosphere has been difficult and expensive. A better alternative might be to remove it at the source. That means at power stations and factories, plus there are new processes offering hope. These include a powder that soaks up CO2 before it is expelled into the air. For CO2 already in the atmosphere, there is a resin in the form of resin trees to absorb it, and a company that promises to capture air CO2 and turn it into fuel. Yet most carbon emission comes from transportation, so it also points to a future of electric cars.

That is also the thesis of Greg Ballard’s book, “Less Oil or More Caskets.” The book’s title refers to the human and military cost of protecting the free flow of oil. A former Marine Lt. Colonel and two-term Republican mayor of Indianapolis, he is a long-term advocate of electric cars and rapid-transit electric buses, the latter underway in Indianapolis. He even managed to secure federal grants despite Trump’s opposition, proving both that Trump is not unassailable and a few Republicans are finally seeing the light.

Another avenue of individual involvement is dietary change for a sustainable future — in itself clearly at odds with the zealous consumption of meat in rich countries. Ruminants release methane through belching as food passes through their several stomachs. Over their agricultural cycle, cattle alone emit 270,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas per tonne of protein, many times more than poultry. As some have noted if cows were a country, they would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions. Hence the Beyond Burger type of substitutes from vegetable sources. If it doesn’t quite make the taste test for some, there is the intriguing potential of lab-grown meat — no animals involved.

This and other innovations have been described not unappetizingly in the National Geographic. For example, crickets are an excellent source of protein offering more protein per pound than beef and their production leaves a tiny ecological footprint in comparison. Ground up into powder, this protein can be added to flour or other foods. Kernza is a perennial grain and a substitute for wheat and corn but without their annual tilling which robs the soil of nutrients and also causes erosion. There is also a new oil made from algae. Sourced originally from the sap of a German chestnut tree, it has been developed further to yield more oil, and is being sold under the name Thrive. With a neutral taste and high smoke point, it makes an excellent substitute for the environmentally destructive palm oil, where plantations have ravaged forests in Indonesia and imperiled orangutans.

All this innovation demonstrates that although the window to act narrows by the day, climate change is not unassailable, provided there is the wherewithal (clearly absent in this administration) to make the urgent and necessary changes in public policy — for example, investment in carbon capture research to make costs viable. In addition, we need the commitment to make changes in our own lives.

More articles by:

Arshad M. Khan is a former professor who has, over many years, written occasionally for the print and often for online media outlets.

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