Climate Change Warnings: Is the End of the World Nigh?

Breakfast with Bwana

By Anil Madan

The juxtaposition was exquisite. Reports of a heat dome that is already scorching parts of Mexico and spreading across states in the southwest and south of the US — one that is forecast to shatter heat records and endanger the lives of elderly and other vulnerable people — come on the heels of the release by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) of its Global Annual to Decadal Climate Update covering the years 2024-2028. And there is the second annual Indicators of Global Climate Change report, under the auspices of the University of Leeds, stating that at present rates of carbon release, the world will put enough carbon into the atmosphere within five years to raise the global average temperature above the 1.5º C threshold agreed as one the world must not violate, at the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres: “We need an exit ramp off the highway to climate hell…”. Pic – Getty Images

A statement from Leeds University explained that analysis shows that the remaining carbon budget, or how much carbon dioxide can be emitted before we reach the 1.5° C level of temperature increase, is only around 200 gigatons, which represents about five years’ worth at current emission levels.

Sensational headlines followed. The Mirror, a UK tabloid had this as part of a headline: “Five Years to Save the Planet …” A report from UPI was headlined: “WMO: 80% chance Earth will exceed Paris Climate Agreement warming limits in next five years.”

Well, not quite. The WMO stated that the likelihood that Earth’s average temperature will temporarily surpass the 1.5º C threshold in the next five years has risen to 80%. This is to say that the chance that at least one of the next five years through 2028 will see us exceeding the 1.5º C Paris Climate Agreement (2015) threshold, has risen steadily (to 80%) since its signing when such a chance was close to zero. It is not clear what the word “temporarily” is intended to convey other than that the temperature will fluctuate.

As the WMO report was issued, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: “We are playing Russian roulette with our planet.” More on that later.

Assessing rising temperatures and emissions trends

There are, of course, significant concerns raised by these reports. The Leeds report notes that the rate of increase of warming has risen to 1.19º C over the past decade (2014-2023) which is an increase over the 1.14º C for the 2013-2022 period. The difference may appear minuscule, but in terms of the available carbon budget to exhaust before reaching the Paris Climate Agreement threshold of 1.5º C, it makes a huge difference — leaving about five years’ worth of fuel burning, as they say. But then, the temperature increase is not attributable solely to fossil fuel burning.

The Leeds University report notes that its total emissions numbers include what it refers to as non-methane short-lived climate forcers or SLCFs. Emissions of all SLCFs were reduced in 2022 relative to 2019 but rebounded again in 2023. The primary driver of the increase in 2023 is an anomalous biomass burning year, mostly related to the unprecedented 2023 Canadian fire season, with a smaller contribution from a continued recovery from Covid-19. Under these assumptions, 2023 was a record year for emissions of organic carbon (driven again by a very active biomass burning season) and ammonia (driven by a steady background increase in agricultural sources, plus a contribution from biomass burning.

One estimate is that fossil fuel emissions represent 70% of all greenhouse gases (GHGs). The question remains whether we can reduce fossil fuel consumption enough to make a difference in the short run. In a previous piece on climate change, I noted that I have not seen evidence that reducing fossil fuel consumption to zero will reverse the temperature increases that we have seen, but perhaps continued consumption at present rates will lead us to a tipping point.

A friend wrote to me about those comments and said he disagreed because he believes there are solutions out there and some are being implemented. I pointed out that I did not say that we should abandon efforts to reduce fossil fuel burning. In fact, I specifically said that I am all in favor of deploying alternate energy solutions where possible. I am not a fan of nuclear power, but I could be convinced that the enormous risks that unmanageable nuclear waste poses to the world may be worth taking if it represents a reversal of the tipping point. I am also 100% a supporter of continuing research into developing alternative and clean energy production.

My point was, and remains, that we do not have the technology or resources to replace fossil fuels rapidly enough to make a difference. This cannot be doubted when we consider that the US, China, and India, propose to continue consumption at current rates (or more) for the foreseeable future. We may well find a solution by 2050, or 2060, or 2070 when the US, China, and India, respectively, promise to be at zero net carbon. In the meantime, the tipping point will have come.

What we do need are urgent steps to mitigate the effects of the soaring heat waves and climate disasters that have become all too frequent. And there is scant attention being paid on this score. This is a worldwide failing.

Not gloom and doom

But all is not gloom and doom. In 2022, 40.6% of the US electricity generation was from “clean” -generation, up from less than 1% a decade ago. But when you consider total energy use, not just electricity, wind and solar represented less than 5% of the total energy used by Americans in 2020.

In 2022, about 16% of China’s and 10.5% of India’s energy consumption was from renewable resources. Obviously, there is much room for growth of renewable sources for these three largest emitters of GHG. Progress may have been slow, but it is accelerating.

As extreme weather events produce record-breaking temperatures, floods and wildfires, there is a tendency to sensationalize the entire subject. So, last Tuesday, the heat dome produced record temperatures in Texas that exceeded 110º F. Heat warnings have been issued in California, Arizona, Nevada, Arkansas, Texas and more.

But the WMO did not say that we are going over the tipping point within five years. What their report said is that at least one year between 2024 and 2028 will beat 2023 as the warmest on record.

Getting back to Guterres, he said: “We need an exit ramp off the highway to climate hell.” But while he allowed that the good news is “we have control of the wheel,” he warned that the battle to slow the rate of increase in Earth’s temperature and keeping it within the Paris Climate Agreement limit, will be won or lost in the rest of this decade of the 2020s.

The WMO notes that its report highlights the need for, and urgency of action on climate. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that the world’s average temperature on land and at the oceans’ surface set a global record in 2023.

“We must urgently do more to cut greenhouse gas emissions, or we will pay an increasingly heavy price in terms of trillions of dollars in economic costs, millions of lives affected by more extreme weather and extensive damage to the environment and biodiversity,” WMO’s Deputy Secretary General Ko Barrett said. He noted that behind these statistics, lies the bleak reality that the world is way off track to meet the Paris Climate Agreement goals.

Climate Change by the Numbers

Here are some numbers to think about.

The global mean temperature in 2023 was about 1.45°C above the 1850-1900 average, close to the 1.5º threshold. 2023 is the warmest year on record, because of long-term climate change and the effect of 2023/2024 El Niño episode. Global sea level increased to a new high of 4.3 inches (110 mm) in 2023, since the beginning of the satellite altimetry measurement in 1993.

It is well to keep in mind that as the WMO explains, climate change may be due to natural internal processes or external forcings such as modulations of the solar cycles, volcanic eruptions and persistent human-induced changes in the composition of the atmosphere, ocean or in land use.

“Anthropogenic” or “human-induced climate change” results from human activities which are already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe.  These can include:

  • burning of fossil fuels,
  • deforestation,
  • land use and land use changes,
  • livestock management,
  • fertilization,
  • waste management, and
  • industrial processes.

The additional good news is that the UN’s 2023 Emissions Gap Report found that greenhouse gas emissions are projected to increase by 3% in 2030, which is an improvement from the 16% increase projected at the time the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015. But emissions remain, for now, above levels needed to meet goals for limiting global temperature increases.

Meanwhile Guterres continues to bang the drums about climate change. He said that last month was “the hottest May in recorded history.”

The WMO report arrived the same day the UN Secretary-General gave remarks at New York’s American Museum of Natural History where he was blunt about the news on World Environment Day, which he called “the hottest May in recorded history.” He added that we are not heeding the message that our planet is sending us. “We’re not only in danger, we are the danger,” he said. “But we are also the solution.”

“The truth is, global emissions need to fall 9% every year until 2030 to keep the 1.5-degree limit alive,” Guterres said.

The WMO predicts further reductions in sea-ice concentration through the next five years in the Barents Sea, the Bering Sea, and Sea of Okhotsk. Climate scientists have noted that July 4 last year was the hottest-ever day on record for average global temperature. The twelve months through October 2023 was the hottest period since record-keeping started in 1850.

NOAA data show the average recorded temperature in 2023 was almost 59º F, which is more than 2+ degrees higher than the global average for the 20th century.

Guterres ended his speech with a somewhat goofy statement. He decried fossil fuel companies as the “godfathers of climate chaos” and said that they should be banned in every country from advertising. He called on news and tech media to stop enabling “planetary destruction” by taking fossil-fuel advertising money. Perhaps this is well-intentioned but what this is likely to achieve is more profit for fossil fuels companies if they eliminate their advertising expenditures. Perhaps what Guterres was getting at is the fact that fossil fuel companies in the US and Britain spent millions of dollars in promoting natural gas as an answer to the climate crisis.

It is clear that a ban on advertising would not survive a First Amendment (freedom of speech and expression) challenge in the US. Perhaps, free speech considerations in Britain as well, would preclude enforcement of such a ban. In any event, it is not clear that people will cut using fossil fuels to power their homes or vehicles simply because ads promoting natural gas disappear.


Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 7 June 2024

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