Global warming: time is running out

An editorial published by the Guardian on 12/12/2018

Global warming is a crisis for civilisation and a crisis for life on Earth. Human-caused climate change was behind 15 deadly weather disasters in 2017, including droughts, floods and heatwaves. The world’s leading climate scientists, in a special report for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have warned that there is only a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5C. To meet that target, global carbon emissions need to drop by 45% by 2030. Instead they are going up. We need radical, urgent change. So it is appalling that negotiators in Poland at the 24th Conference of the Parties, or COP24, are finding it so hard to push ahead with implementing the climate deal signed three years ago in Paris.

This is largely because rising rightwing nationalism has vitiated the global solidarity needed to avoid a catastrophe. Under the Paris agreement, effective action to tackle climate change requires global cooperation on three fronts: first, nations set demanding carbon-reduction targets for their own societies; second, countries are held accountable for meeting these targets through surveillance mechanisms; and third, rich states provide cash for poorer ones to transition to a carbon-free future. Yet none of this is possible when the most important actors on the world stage think that the chief business of the nation state lies at home. The biggest problem is the US president, Donald Trump – a longtime climate-change denier. While negotiators were discussing how to lower carbon emissions, Mr Trump’s officials unveiled two schemes promoting fossil fuels. The US’s rogue behaviour has encouraged others to behave badly: notably Saudi Arabia, which played a key role in attempts to wreck the summit’s “welcoming” of the IPCC report. Last month, Brazil’s president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, chose as his foreign minister a climate-change denier, and the nation has pulled out of hosting COP25. The top European leaders – Emmanuel Macron, Theresa May and Angela Merkel – are inwardly focused, leaving Poland, the current talks’ host, to sing the virtues of its large coal stocks. The other big players are India and China: the latter has the global heft but is not internationally deft; for the former, the opposite is true.

Public opinion is way ahead of national politics. In the US there has been a definite shift in beliefs: more than 80% of Americans, including most Republicans, believe climate change is happening. Tens of thousands of people in Brussels marched ahead of the summit in Poland. The collapse of the planet’s biosphere has permeated the public consciousness. This means that there are breakthroughs: Poland relented to create a group that will make sure the summit’s goals will be ambitious. Germany has stumped upextra cash to ensure funding pledges are met. Even the US has been allowed to play a constructive role in creating rules by which nations agree to abide by in meeting climate targets – because everyone has an interest in creating a backdoor for Washington to re-enter the agreement. About 80% of all energy traded is oil, coal or gas. The world’s economy runs on fossil fuel, which is destroying our planet. Creating and deploying zero-carbon technologies is a formidable and costly challenge. But threats to future lives are as morally reprehensible as threats to our own. We owe them more than this.