This month’s Bearing Witness to Climate Change provides a summary of news from November 2022 related to the changing climate and its impact on people and the planet.
World leaders met this month in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, for the 27th meeting of the Conference of the Parties, better known as COP27. The United Nation’s host Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the world is accelerating on a highway to hell but that humanity has a choice, either cooperate or perish.
Al Gore reminded COP27 attendees it was not the time for more moral cowardice. Canada’s former environmental minister, Catherine McKenna, spoke of too much greenwashing abuse by businesses who make exaggerated net-zero pledges that are hard to track.
President Biden also attended the event, restating that the US is back as a climate leader and is acting with urgency like never before. He added that everyone has to act as well, likely singling out China and India who did not send their top officials despite them being the top 1st and 4th emitting economies.
Yet, despite all the rhetoric and pledges at COP27, carbon emissions continue to rise year-after-year since the first of these meetings in 1992 which was followed by the Kyoto Protocol and Paris agreements. The world will rapidly burn through the remaining carbon budget to keep temperatures within previously agreed-to levels in less than a decade if nations do not reduce emissions faster.
As the world prepared for COP27 this year, a news report finds that few countries have made stronger commitment targets to reduce emissions that they promised to do so at the last COP26 in Scotland.
African countries argued that they should not pay the price for the crimes the developed world has committed, and demanded compensation for the losses and damages they will experience. As a result, there is growing momentum to create billion or even trillion-dollar funds to help the developing global south part of the planet transition to green energy, leap frogging over dirty fossil fuels as they develop.
Over 10 years ago the developed rich nations of the global north pledged over $100B per year by 2020 to help the poorest countries with their mitigation and adaptation, a goal that has yet to be met. However, the science of climate change attribution, that is attributing a specific weather-related event of disaster to climate change, is not as far along as that of the basic science of climate change cause. As a result, many worry disbursement of funds will be more political in nature with a risk of all the money being wasted or falling into corrupt hands.
It took the small island nation of Tuvalu to propose something so reasonable and long overdue; similar to nuclear weapons they argued there should be a non-proliferation treaty that stops further fossil fuel production. While the UN leader responded by suggesting a solidarity pact, there was no action on this proposal.
Alarming data released at COP27 predicts that carbon emissions are not yet trending downward but are still rising, despite a dip last year due to the pandemic. They are expected to increase by 1% in 2022, hitting a new record of 37.5 tonnes. China remains the largest emitter, responsible for nearly a third. They are followed by the US at 14%, then the EU at 8% and India at 8%. The largest increase is expected from India whose emissions are estimated to rise by 6% this year. The good news is that China’s emissions are expected to drop by 1% this year, but that is largely due to its COVID-stressed economy.
At COP 27, US Climate Envoy John Kerry, who would come down with COVID during the summit, presented the Energy Transition Accelerator program to provide billions of dollars to help developing countries reduce emissions and move to renewables using carbon offset credits. The program is being promoted as a replacement to the use of unregulated carbon-credits which have been criticized as an accounting scheme that may not actually reduce emissions.
It was reported that Saudi Arabia representatives at COP27 refused to support a call in the final report for the world to burn less oil and phase out fossil fuels. They also did not support the wording of “human-induced” climate change. Saudis are said to have worked to obstruct climate action and research.
While global leaders met for COP27, most flying in on their private jets. some scientists and activists associated with Scientist Rebellion participated in an act of non-violent civil disobedience by shutting down private airports in three states. Private jets are estimated to cause 5-14 times as much pollution per passenger as commercial flights.
COP27 ended with a final agreement to help developing economies and poor countries pay for climate change mitigation and transitioning to renewables. However, there was no public agreement on more important issues of cutting emissions, temperature rise limits, or phasing out the burning of fossil fuels. Yes, after 27 meetings of hundreds of world leaders we cannot even agree on this critically important fundamental goal. Progress, yes. Success, not yet.
Without these bolder actions, activists and scientists fear that limiting the increase in temperature to 1.5 deg C (2.7 deg F) is now out of reach for humanity. There was increased debate about a new goal of 1.7 degrees, which simply means we are backsliding and kicking the can down the road for future generations to deal with.
According to the Global Carbon Project, the world has about nine years left to meet the 1.5 deg target with emissions at the current rate. The planet has already warmed more than 1 deg. The time available to meet any goal nearly doubles to 18 years if the revised target is raised to 1.7 degrees, which seems small change. Just don’t tell that to parts of the globe that are already seeing temperatures some 4-5 degrees warmer which risk triggering a cascade of irreversible tipping points. The IEA estimates that over $4 trillion dollars will need to be spent between now and 2030 to meet the Paris Accord 2030 goal of 1.5 deg.
After COP27 during a G-20 meeting in Bali, President Biden of the US and President Xi of China, representing the two biggest economies and two largest emitters of fossil fuel emissions, agreed to restart international climate talks. Talks had been suspended by China in retaliation of America’s relationship supporting Taiwan. As the Russian invasion of Ukraine has slowed progress in Europe, combating climate change around the world is being stymied by politics, economics, and conflict.
UNESCO released a new report warning that glaciers in World Heritage sites across the world will disappear by midcentury if GHG emissions aren’t drastically cut. This includes glaciers in US National Parks, like Yosemite and Yellowstone, as well as the few remaining in Africa. They also warn that the melting will impact agriculture, biodiversity and both rural and urban livelihoods.
A draft of the next US National Climate Assessment report reads that climate change will unleash far-reaching and worsening disasters in every region of the country unless we move faster to slow warming by drastically reducing emissions. The report documents that over the past 50 years the continental US has warmed more than two-thirds faster than the planet as a whole. The authors warn that nearly every aspect of American life and security will be at risk, making climate change a much bigger issue than just extreme weather events.
The country’s largest river, the Mississippi River, has dropped to low water levels not seen for over three decades. Much of the upper Midwest has been in drought conditions for most of the year. River water used for commerce, transportation, recreation, tourism, agriculture, energy, industry, wildlife, hunting, and drinking have all been reduced with substantial economic distress.
Across the country in the Pacific Northwest along the coast of the state of Washington, local and federal governments are debating how to save Native American Reservations which are under threat due to flooding from rising sea levels and more extreme weather events. One option is to relocate tribal communities to higher grounds in a “managed retreat” from climate change, all which may be less expensive than continuing to rebuild after a disaster.
Republican lawmakers in the US are said to be planning to investigate ESG investments as part of their new culture war on what they describe as “woke capitalism.” Some Republicans have gone so far to call ESG investing a cancer and fraud because it penalizes the fossil fuel industry. It’s always amusing to hear hypocritical free market conservatives rail against the freedom of others to evaluate the prudence of their investment portfolios.
The UN environmental agency issued a damming report concluding that there is no credible pathway to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C and that progress is woefully inadequate. A leading global climate scientist. Prof. Johan Rockstrom, went on to say that the climate crisis has reached a really bleak moment because we are very close to irreversible tipping points.
Australia has been cited as the only country to file a credible plan for cutting emissions, though they have much catching up to do based on years of inaction, similar to the US. The Aussie public seems to be on board as a recent poll found that almost 80% of respondents believe that the country should phase out coal-fired power plants (remarkable for an economy that mines and exports so much coal) and over two-thirds want state and federal government to do more.
A new study published in the journal Science confirmed the damage done to Arctic permafrost from over 400 fires that burned in Siberia in 2019-20. The fires are believed to have released CO2 emissions that match those of some countries, like Spain. The fires were caused by record warmth and drier conditions brought on by climate change.
In the US some 1.7 million acres of forest across 17 eastern states have been bought for $1.8B by an investment consortium for the value of preserving their carbon sequestration. As a result, there will be limited logging as the investors hope to use the forest to issue carbon offset credits that will allow others to reduce their carbon footprint, at least on paper.
In some conservative states of the US, educators are limited from addressing climate change in the teaching curriculums approved by Republican-dominated legislators and governors. The irony is that this is occurring in states like Texas and Florida, even though they are most likely to be impacted by a warming climate with sea level rise. Some years ago, Florida even restricted their own environmental officials from using the words “climate change”. However, teachers there are learning how to get around the lack of curriculum resources that help them to educate their students about climate change and ways to mitigate the damages that will occur.
The nonprofit Climate TRACE says it can estimate emissions with precision down to single polluting facilities, not just regions or countries as a whole. The organization claims that its estimates are more accurate and reliable than those available to date. As a result, it reported that the oil and gas industry is emitting far more emissions than previously reported.
China is thought to burn more coal that the rest of the world combined contributing to a 6% rise in its emissions in 2021. The country has nearly 200 GW of new coal-fired power plants under construction or in the planning stages, in addition to 200 GW that was added in the past five years. This despite China claiming its emissions will peak before 2030 and shrink to net zero by 2060. We can only hope for that, as without it there is little chance to slow climate change.
The Biden Administration announced plans to protect the US government’s supply chain from climate-related risks and work to reduce emissions. The new executive rule will require that major contractors disclose their greenhouse gas emissions and climate-related financial risks, and set emissions reduction targets. The plan is part of the US Federal Sustainability Plan that has a goal of net-zero emissions procurement by 2050.
A rare November hurricane struck the Florida Atlantic coast only a month after the gulf coast of the state was harmed by Hurricane Ian. While it was only a Category 1 storm, its waves and surge caused damages associated with mightier hurricanes.
Herman Daly, thought of as the first ecological economist, has died. Over four decades ago, Mr. Daly challenged conventional thinking that growth is always good and instead proposed the ideas of a steady-state economy along with an index of sustainable economic welfare. He also championed the belief that the economy does not exist apart from the Earth’s biosphere, but within it, and as such is limited by finite natural resources.
Increasing population, rising temperatures, unpredictable rainfalls, and diminishing water from rivers and aquifers are creating hardships on the poorest populations of countries like Jordan. Water shortages have spurred political unrest and protests while inciting migration to more habitable lands. We can expect this to play out all across the globe in coming years.
The Nature Conservancy has taken out the first insurance policy for a natural structure, coral reefs off the Hawaiian Islands. Coral reefs around the world are being threatened by overfishing, pollution, and warmer more acidic waters caused by climate change. Payouts from the policy would be used for rapid repair and restoration of reefs damaged by storms.
Climate protests around the world are escalating, due largely to the inability of nations to slow carbon emissions. In Europe, protesters have thrown food and liquids at master art works that were thankfully protected by glass. In the UK, activists have blocked motorways bringing traffic to a standstill. Tens of thousands across Europe took to the streets as COP27 officials met in Egypt where protests were restricted. Yet, governments seem more outraged at the actions of the protesters than they are to the growing climate crisis and are increasing fines and jail sentences.
The state of New York became the first state to ban new cryptocurrency mining permits that use power from fossil-fuel plants. As coal-burning plants are decommissioned, some crypto-mining operations are seeking to retrofit the plants to power huge banks of computers required for proof-of-work authentication. Now, permits will be issued only for those using renewable energy sources.
Climate researchers have adopted the use of a term to describe the cascading crises that are colliding around the planet: global polycrisis. They claim the world is suffering from the amplification, acceleration, and synchronization of the world’s systemic risks including those from viral diseases, climate-related disasters, overpopulation, overconsumption, migrations, stressed natural resources, falling biodiversity, agricultural failures, armed conflict, financial instabilities, political unrest and diminishing resiliency of systems to respond to each of these individually, much less collectively.
The country of South Africa is facing many of the same challenges as others in transitioning from coal which provides about 80% of its electricity. Coal mining provides jobs to many workers in poor rural regions of the country who would struggle to find equally paying employment. While the government has announced a pledge to phase out coal-powered plants, new coal mines and power plants are still being constructed.
Across the southern Atlantic, the country of Columbia has a new President that wants to diminish the country’s dependency on oil and coal mining, equating it with cocaine. President Petro has called for reimagining its economy, despite a fifth of the national budget dependent upon those fossil-fuel exports. Columbia currently generates an impressive 80% of its own energy from renewable sources such as hydropower.
Public health officials across the US are becoming more concerned about exposure to toxin-filled smoke from wildfires associated with drier hotter weather patterns due to climate change. The past year saw nearly 60,000 fires consume almost 7 million acres across the country creating heavy blankets of smoke. After decades of improving air quality, it is now falling across much of the Western US. Some fires are burning so hot that smoke rises higher into the atmosphere and is carried thousands of miles away. Air-borne toxic particulates from fires have been found to increase rates of asthma, pneumonia, lung cancer, stroke, heart failure and sudden death.
Off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada, engineers and marine scientists are collaborating to harness ocean tides to create electricity without damaging marine life. The company Sustainable Marine has produced floating movable turbines that do less harm than permanently moored platforms previously used in other tidal power prototypes. The province has previously committed to eliminating its coal plants by the end of the decade and is becoming a leader in tidal energy innovation.
Shipments by sea from the US to Europe of LNG gas have doubled this year due largely to the Ukraine war and reduced gas from Russia. Tankers are lined up at European ports and offshore transfer terminals waiting to discharge more years of climate change.
Archaeologists in Egypt are finding that increasing heat and heavier rainstorms are accelerating the erosion of the country’s antiquities that date back thousands of years.
Over 150 million Euros is being spent in Germany to study and preserve the Rhine River as an economic, transportation and tourism asset. Nearly annual-occurring droughts and heat waves are causing low-water in numerous locations which blocks all river traffic for weeks at a time, costing billions of Euros.
The state of California has announced new details in its plan to become net-zero by mid-century. The plan aims to reduce all oil usage and reduce GHG emissions by 85%, all by 2045, all while doubling its total electricity generation. To support this, California will receive over a $1B in new funds to keep its last remaining nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, running past its previously set retirement date of 2025.
Some climate scientists are warning about the growing hype surrounding hydrogen as a replacement for fossil fuel energy sources. Using hydrogen is an energy intensive process. Redirecting renewable energy to produce green hydrogen is much less efficient than just directly using electricity from renewable sources.
In America’s midterm elections, numerous Democrats who supported climate action were winners at federal and state levels across the country. No Congressional Republican voted for President Biden’s recent IRA climate-funding bill.
Harvard University researchers think that with current rates of warming, by midcentury half of the world may experience dangerous levels of heat for at least one month every year. The cities of Karachi, Mumbai, Delhi, Miami, and Lagos may see over 100 days of dangerously hot days with a heat index above 103 deg F. Debilitating heat will so affect public health, mortality rates, occupational dangers, agricultural production, and energy usage that many residents and businesses will be forced to relocate in a wave of climate migration.
This month the world’s population surpassed 8 billion people, just 11 years after passing 7 billion. It reminds me what too few leaders are willing to point out in public. The first term in the equation determining environmental pollution and economic consumption that results in emissions are the number of people ultimately responsible for all the producing, polluting and consuming. Can there be true progress in limiting emissions without first talking about slowing population growth?
Featured image is from Nature and the Global Carbon Project at https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-03657-w.