4C Climate newsletter - July 2018

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15 july 2018

ON CAVE RESCUES AND CLIMATE DISASTERS

Amsterdam, 15 July 2018

Dear Friends,

I write in the aftermath of the Thai cave drama. The world has rejoiced at the news that an international team of expert divers succeeded in extricating the twelve members of an adolescent Thai soccer team, and their coach, from a two-week imprisonment in a cave complex near Thailand’s northern border. Amid extensive TV, press and internet news coverage, sympathetic public involvement seemed to be universal. What many found so moving was the mobilization of resources in nations across the planet, in sync with the empathy we felt for the boys, for the risk-running rescuers – one already dead – and for their Thai relatives and friends. This is as it should be – we are citizens of one planet and, as the English poet wrote centuries ago, “the bell tolls for thee.” For some of us, the multinational rescue operation could be pars pro toto for what we hope may still be possible for our warming-endangered planetary home.

But… Around the edges of the ubiquitous reporting on those youngsters and their brave rescuers, two other “human interest” stories seeped through the news media. Competing with the cave drama (though on a much smaller scale) were reports on the disastrous flooding of western Japan, claiming the lives of two hundred and forcing the evacuation of two million to escape flooded rivers. Such disasters have become commonplace in east Asia, but BBC quoted one Japanese weather official as saying: “We’ve never experienced this kind of rain before,” and the BBC added: “The heavy rains began with a typhoon last week that was followed by days of record-breaking torrential rain.”

“Never experienced…”, “record-breaking torrential rain”? There is no reference in that article, nor in most of the others I could find on this catastrophe, to global warming or climate change. Only the environmentalist website “Earther.com” pinpointed the usual suspect: Yessenia Funes’s article did so on the typhoon rains in Japan (“Japan’s Typhoon Rains Have Left 2 Million Ready to Evacuate”. Ms Funes closed her article with this:

“Typhoon season is always scary for Japan. Last year, floods killed at least 30 people in the South. What sucks most is that these events won’t end and they won’t get better. Not with the way we’re warming the planet. Climate change could very well intensify the typhoons that lead to these sort of rains, per Japan’s Central Environmental Council.

“We’re all in for a rude awakening.”

The other humanitarian disaster is so normal that citizens of European and North American countries rarely notice it any more, except as something that laws, walls and internment camps are supposed to keep out of sight: the regular recourse of migrating Africans, driven by violence and diminishing food supplies, to dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean. Switching from CNN and BBC in the midst of the Thai cave crisis, I found a hasty reference on “Euronews” to renewed drowning of would-be refugees from overloaded and unsafe small boats off the coast of southern Europe.

In this case, the tie to climate change is less obvious, but nonetheless evident. For Sub-Saharan Africans, the trigger for migration is frequently tribal warfare triggered by starvation-threatening droughts. A similar prolonged drought in Syria some five years ago forced millions of bankrupt farmers into desolate urban slums, which were the breeding ground of the revolt still tearing the country apart and sending more than a million refugees northward in search of safety in Europe. The relation of climate change to the conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa has become clear enough for the UN Security Council to have devoted a hearing to the subject on July 11. At the hearing, its first on the subject in seven years, the Security Council heard that:

“Climate change is contributing to instability in many parts of the world,... A community advocate from Chad and Iraq’s water minister testified to the interplay of water scarcity and conflict in their homelands. Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallström and UN deputy chief Amina Mohammed, fresh from a trip to the drought- and terrorist-stricken Lake Chad basin, led calls for a coordinated international response. ‘It is past time for us to deepen our understanding of how climate change interacts with drivers of conflict,’ said Wallström, chairing the meeting…. ‘Fragile countries are in danger of becoming stuck in a cycle of conflict and climate disaster. Where resilience is eroded, communities may be displaced and exposed to exploitation,’ said Mohammed, a former environment minister for Nigeria”

At this moment, the news is dominated by Donald Trump’s latest international folly, his bullying of America’s traditional friends in the UK and NATO, and his cosying up to Vladimir Putin and the Russian oligarchs, the source of much investment in Trump properties. Behind the multiple presidential disasters, however, the more permanent mutilation of the planet’s climate goes on unabated. The warming of the earth’s surface continues and with it an intensification of the heat waves, droughts, floods and wildfires we have learned to expect, as well as the conflicts they breed. Notwithstanding the American president’s reversion to climate skepticism, the rest of the world has taken note and is slowly, in governmental policies, NGO action, and in corporate board rooms, confronting the oncoming disaster ever more seriously.

Germany, with its Energiewende of 2010, initiated the European effort to take global warming seriously. The UN-sponsored Paris Accord of 2015 provided an international framework, and the European Union has moved in the same direction. Recently, two small European countries initiated national programs to meet the challenge of warming, going beyond anything yet implemented at an international level. The Irish Parliament agreed “to sell all [of Ireland’s] investments in coal, oil, gas and peat “as soon as is practicable”. And a multiparty coalition in the Netherlands backed a far-reaching legislative proposal that may serve as an international model.

This latter achievement merits a more extensive description.

On July 11, three of the country’s most important dailies – Trouw, Volkskrant, Financieel Dagblad – proclaimed in front page headlines that after four months of negotiations, scores of representatives of companies, government, NGOs and climate scientists had reached agreement on the framework for a “climate law” (klimaatwet). The “climate law” would enforce elimination of 95% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It would provide for subsidies for a rapid expansion of renewable power and for conversion of homes and businesses and transportation from fossil fuel to wind or solar power.

To actually become “law”, it would of course still have to be concretized and passed by the country’s parliament. And the news media reflect an expected public concern about the cost, and who will bear it. Moreover, NGOs have already criticized the proposal, intended to comply with the country’s commitment to the Paris Accord, as only bringing it as far as Antwerp. Another drawback is lack of clarity about the role in any future legislation of carbon capture and storage – a technology favored by the fossil fuel companies because it allows them to burn coal indefinitely, but dismissed by most of environmentalists as unsafe, unproven and costly. The earlier discussion about a climate law (talked about for years) gave CCS a central role, but the extent of its possible use under the klimaatwet is still a bone of contention between climate activists (Greenpeace, Milieudefensie and Natuur & Milieu were among the negotiators) and fossil fuel companies.

But the really good news is that the initiative for this was taken by a coalition of seven of the country’s major parties - from both the government and the opposition – representing a clear parliamentary majority. The principal coordinator of the negotiations was Ed Nijpels, a former leader of the liberal VVD party, while the coordinator of the group devoted to eliminating greenhouse gases from the electric power supply was Kees Vendrick, a prominent member (and former parliamentarian) of the Green Left Party. Leading figures of the Labour Party, the Socialist Party, the left-liberal D66 party and the current parliamentary leader of Green Left, Jesse Klaver, also were initiators of the project. If passed, it will be implemented by the Minister of Economic Affairs and Climate, Eric Wiebes, of the VVD. (For a list of the political, industrial and environmental participants in the discussions, click here).

The Netherlands is of course a small country, with a population that is only 1/20 that of the United States, but it may well be a bellwether for many other European countries, as it was in the 1980s resistance to the US’s planned network of European nuclear rockets. The EU has its own climate program, which is being pushed by the EU Parliament and strongly supported by Germany and France, the power axis of the union. Apart from governmental action, there is a strong movement toward divestment in fossil fuels that has not only the ubiquitous NGOs behind it, but also the heads of the Catholic and Anglican churches. Even the fossil fuel companies themselves face growing internal pressure to plan for a fossil-free future: Shell has been forced to confront the growing authority at its annual shareholders’ meetings of the “fossil-free” group of investors coordinated by “Follow This”.

In the U.S. itself, the limits of the know-nothingism of the Trump administration are being shown by, among other things, the forced resignation of the climate-denying head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Moreover, many states and cities, opposed to the inaction at the Federal level, are either implementing their own measures to combat warming or actually going to court against the corporate and governmental instances responsible for denial and inaction. The children’s legal suit against governmental inaction has just gained the vociferous support of Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning former Chief Economist of the World Bank. Despite the government’s climate skepticism, a coalition of elder statesmen from the Republican as well as the Democratic Party is advocating a carbon tax of $40/ton. (Although this now seems utopian, so did the Dutch climate law when Milieudefensie - the Dutch Friends of the Earth - first proposed it a decade ago.) In Europe, the EU is – again, too slowly, but definitely – sharpening its own environmental policies. China seems to be cutting back its emissions more rapidly than it had promised. [Click here and here] (it had earlier said it would “peak” its emissions only in 2030).

Supporting this glacial but clear movement toward definitive action against the climate peril is the ever sharper evidence of just how dangerous the situation is (you need only look at our News Rubric of the past year to see this.) Even the IPCC, the UN’s cautious intergovernmental scientific panel on climate change, is now calling for implementation of the lower target specified in the Paris Accord - 1.5C maximum warming - since the consequences of the alternative maximum aimed for there (“well below 2.C”) are considered unsafe for the future maintenance of human society.

To sum up: the good news is that more and more governments are taking action against climate change, climate suits against the laggards are flowing into the courts, activists are putting increasing pressure on pension and insurance funds to divest and on fossil fuel companies to accept the reality of their demise. The bad news is that all this may be occurring too slowly to prevent catastrophe.

Keep fighting.

Arthur Mitzman, coordinator, Concerned Citizens against Climate Change


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