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Climate Chaos, the Science and Our Own Responsibilities

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Message Arshad M Khan

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-paragraph 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 2-C 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 2-C rise the cycle becomes self-sustaining, meaning a runaway-feedback-loop cycle. Clearly the Paris agreement, holding temperature increase to 2 C, 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.

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Arshad M Khan is a former Professor. Educated at King's College London, Oklahoma State University and the University of Chicago, he has a multidisciplinary background that has frequently informed his research. He was elected a Fellow of the (more...)
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