COMMENT: It really is time for the UK government to declare a Climate Change Emergency
Richard Price asks why the government isn’t declaring a climate change emergency given the evidence building up of climate catastrophe.
Why are the media under-reporting or even ignoring the climate catastrophe in the making? Scientists consistently underestimate the speed of climate change, which is happening far faster than predicted. We are only half way through 2020 and already unusually high temperatures have been registered across the globe. It has been the world’s warmest May on record. The three-month season (March through May) and the year to date (January through May) ranked second-warmest in the 141-year global record.
The Greenland ice sheet is melting four times faster than previously thought. The temperature in June broke an all-time heat record in the Arctic. Ninety-five per cent of the old ice has melted; it is the fastest-warming place on Earth. The permafrost collapse in the Arctic and Boreal Regions is now irreversible and is possibly a tipping point that has been crossed, the resulting release of methane is unprecedented.
According to the trend that can be seen in the Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimilation System (PIOMAS) Yearly Arctic Ice Volume, the Arctic is on target to be ice free by 2029. Peter Wadhams of the Yale School of Environment writes: ‘This monumental change is triggering a cascade of effects that will amplify global warming and could destabilize the global climate system.’
Professor Tim Lenton, director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter says: “The growing threat of rapid, irreversible changes means it is no longer responsible to wait and see. The situation is urgent and we need an emergency response.” (phys.org)
Top scientists wrote in Science Advances (a peer-reviewed multidisciplinary open-access scientific journal) that the Amazon rainforest is vulnerable to catastrophic forest fires and may begin to collapse and turn into a barren desert almost overnight.
Given the predisposition from the science world for underestimation, the following headlines should be treated with trepidation: unsuitable for ‘human life to flourish’: Up to 3B will live in extreme heat by 2070, study warns (USA Today) and, 60% of fish species could be unable to survive in current areas by 2100 – study (The Guardian) or, Climate change: 40°C summer temperatures could be common in UK by 2100 (The Conversation).
Are the predictions likely to come true sooner? Forty degrees is very hot, most would find it difficult to endure. In 2019 Australia experienced its hottest year on record, average temperatures were 1.52C above the 1961-1990 average. Consequently, the 2019 to 2020 Australian bushfire season was unprecedented in its ferocity. Over 18m hectares burnt with over a billion animals killed.
The latest progress report (June 2020) by the UK statutory Committee on Climate Change (CCC) alarmingly instructs all government departments: “Ahead of the CCC’s next adaptation progress report in 2021, demonstrate adaptation planning for a minimum 2°C and consideration of a 4°C global temperature rise (by 2100 from pre-industrial levels).”
What would a 4°C world look like? In his book ‘Don’t even think about it’ George Marshall gives three snapshots of a four-degree world: heatwaves, extinctions and food yields. There will be an Earth of hell-like heatwaves of a magnitude the planet has not seen for five million years. Rain forests will be scorched, with the consequent loss of life-saving drugs, and enormous regions rendered uninhabitable. This will be the norm.
George Marshall writes: “Nor is there any guarantee that temperatures would level off at four degrees – at this level further powerful feedbacks and tipping points could lead temperatures to keep rising further, to six and then eight degrees.”
Serious research and a number of eminent scientists believe that based on the evidence only about half a billion people will survive a four-degree centigrade world. The entire tropical region will be rendered uninhabitable. The current population of Earth is 7.8 billion which means that 7.3 billion people will die.
A four-degree rise will cause more suffering and death than all of the genocides and wars in human history. The effects of heat and lack of water will feel like torture. The implications on biodiversity are also horrendous: iconic animals that are part of our culture, tigers, lions, whales and most of the birds are likely to die out along with their habitats.
The statement ‘demonstrate adaptation planning for a minimum 2°C’ is also worrying. Some 197 countries (every country on Earth) have signed The Paris agreement (albeit that the USA is now in the process of withdrawing) which commits us to ‘zero carbon in our time’, and to take action ‘to hold the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 degrees centigrade’. If Earth warms above 2 per cent then the worst effects of climate change will become reality: extreme heat, severe storms, drought, fires, and rising sea levels. The main reason why countries decided on 2 per cent is because we might lose control of the climate as tipping points kick in leading to cascades and cycles that perpetuate and feed into one another.
The Paris Agreement asks that we pursue 1.5 degrees centigrade and to do so in accordance with the best science and also on the basis of equity. In a lecture explaining commitments to The Paris Agreement, Professor Kevin Anderson said: “Despite optimistic rhetoric we’ve delivered 27 years of abject failure in terms of reducing total emissions.’ And further: ‘And, 2 per cent is not safe, which is why poorer parts of the world ask for 1.5. At 2 degrees centigrade as many people will die. They’ll be poor, they’ll be a long way from here, they have almost no role in actively causing the problem and they’ll typically be non-white. And we’ve known that for the last 25 years, when we’ve known everything we need to do about climate change
Most climate scientists say that we are headed into a three-to-seven degree catastrophe that will be suffered by humanity (and most animals on the planet) at some point in the next 35 to 70 years. In a 2009 Guardian article, climate change experts agreed that the world will not meet its 2 per cent targets. The majority polled (46%) believed that the temperature would rise by 3 to 4 degrees centigrade. That was eleven years ago but the climate has changed so rapidly that if they were asked today the result would most likely be very different.
At a moment in history when all is at stake the UK government has a chance to lead the world by example
The definition of emergency is ‘a serious, unexpected, and potentially dangerous situation requiring immediate action’ (Oxford English Dictionary). Strictly speaking this is all expected, therefore it does not fit the definition of an emergency. However, the rate of change is unexpected and therefore it really is an emergency.
The declaration of a climate emergency would mean that a process would be put in place whereby the initial action would be to refer to the science and determine how bad the situation is and then determining what action to take. However, the government may fear the consequences because the likely result would be the realisation that carbon needs to be left in the ground and this would signal the end of our carbon-based economy upsetting corporate donors and others who are profiting from the current economic system.
Inequality increases climate change and it could be that this realisation would cause economic changes that a Conservative government would not like. But it is essential that Conservatives buy into the need to positively change the climate so as to ensure that a habitable Earth continues.
According to the Equality Trust, ‘Wealth in Great Britain is even more unequally divided than income. In 2016, the ONS calculated that the richest 10% of households hold 44% of all wealth. The poorest 50%, by contrast, own just 9%. More than that, for the UK as a whole, the WID found that the top 0.1% had their share of total wealth double, between 1984 and 2013, reaching 9 per cent.
The good news is that scientists say that there is still time to do something to solve the crisis. The bad news is that governments do not want to declare an emergency because then they will have to listen to the scientists. At a moment in history when all is at stake the UK government has a chance to lead the world by example. No country alone will solve this problem but by working together globally we could… if only the UK government would take the first step and declare a climate emergency.
• Richard Price lives in Hastings and is a freelance member of the
NUJ specialising in writing about biodiversity and climate breakdown
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