Happy St George's Day: St George, the patron saint of England. And William Shakespeare’s birthday. Had he lived, he would have been 457 today! This week Her Majesty the Queen celebrated her 95th birthday.
We are living in dangerous times, but the good news is that people - powerful people - are talking about the climate crisis. They are talking about actions they’ll take to deal with the climate crisis. But at the same time, climate protestors are being criminalised across the world. Newspapers reporting on these prosecutions have withdrawn articles in the face of threats of legal action. Yes, here in the UK.
Yes, world leaders are talking about what they can do about the climate crisis and there’s a new report out about the consequences of a 3 degree rise for Australia which emphasises the urgency. On the upside there’s a total turnaround in US climate policy as the nation rejoins the Paris Agreement and sets up an international conference on climate. In the UK the government announces truly world-beating targets for emissions reduction.
I was going to cover other items this week, but events are changing rapidly all the time. I’ve already changed the episode title four times!
3 degrees in Australia
First, let’s look at the new report from the Australian Academy of Science. Brought to me by Ian Dance, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at the University of New South Wales, it sets out the risks to Australia of a 3°C warmer world. It runs to only 98 pages so it’s not a difficult read, but if you haven’t got time for that there’s a 3-minute video on line that’s worth watching. There’s a link below.
Why 3 degrees? Although the objective of the Paris agreement was to hold global warming below 2°, the targets set in 2015 when the agreement was signed are insufficient and warming is expected to rise to at least 3°. Nations are revising their targets in advance of COP26, but for the moment let’s look at some of the effects on Australia of a three degrees rise.
Agriculture and Forestry
For agriculture and forestry, increased temperature will put pressure on water supplies, heat stress will affect livestock, crop yields will continue to fall and the fire risk will be greater. Storms will erode grazing land and livestock will be lost to flooding.
Cities and Towns
Most Australians live in cities and towns, many of these in coastal areas and therefore vulnerable to sea level rise. In some areas the increased threats from floods, storms and wildfires will make properties and businesses uninsurable and therefore unviable.
Increased electricity demand for air conditioning during heatwaves will put pressure on an ageing infrastructure, much of it powered by coal.
Violent weather and wildfires put stress on human health. There will be a greater risk from heatstroke and smoke from bush fires can exacerbate heart and lung diseases.
The solution, according to the report, is for Australia to achieve net zero. It lays out a list of policy objectives and presents 10 recommendations, from joining global leaders in increasing actions for tackling and solving climate change to introducing a suite of policies that would deliver deep and rapid cuts in emissions across the economy. Along the way it recommends a greater commitment for meeting the challenges of change already in the climate system and reviewing Australia’s capacity and flexibility to take up innovations and technology breakthroughs for transitioning to a low GHG emission future.
All of this a long way from the policies of the present government.
You can read the full report on line and there’s a link to it below.
Let me just share a couple of quotations: The authors say,
“We adopted the precautionary principle: if a potentially damaging effect cannot be ruled out, it needs to be taken seriously.”
“… there is no point in discovering the precise tipping point by tipping it.” (Lovejoy and Nobre 2018).
Biden Climate Summit
Australia will get its opportunity to work with global leaders in tackling climate change sooner than they might have expected. Today, Earth Day, as this episode goes to press, President Biden will convene a virtual meeting of 40 countries to address the climate crisis.
This comes as the new US administration reverses the climate scepticism of the Trump presidency. The nation has rejoined the Paris Agreement and last week, after a meeting between John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart in Shanghai, the US and China announced a commitment to work together to tackle climate change.
At this week’s virtual meeting the US will attempt to re-assert its global leadership on climate change. It’s expected that the President will unveil an updated carbon pledge that will see the nation’s emissions nearly halved by 2030.
Interestingly, officials have already singled out Australia in advance of the meeting and hinted that there will have to be a shift in their approach.
UK Climate Targets
Meanwhile the UK government has announced radical new climate change commitments to cut carbon emissions by 78% by 2035. If achieved, this would be truly world-beating, but there is increasing criticism of Boris Johnson for promises without actions. A 10-point plant was announced recently, but practical details are still awaited. There have been decisions inconsistent with the UK’s role as COP26 host nation, like the proposals for a new coal mine in northwest England.
UK Falls Behind
Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief who led the 2015 Paris climate agreement, warned: “There have been recent decisions in the UK that are not aligning with the ambition of the net zero target. It is worrisome. There are raised eyebrows among world leaders watching the UK.”
Mary Robinson, chair of the Elders group of independent global leaders, and a former UN climate envoy, said poor countries were questioning the UK’s actions, particularly in cutting overseas aid. “People are shocked [by the aid cut],” she said. “The poorest countries are the moral authority at the Cop, they drive the urgency, they drive the credibility. You need them fully behind the UK presidency to get the good ambition needed.”
Emmanuel Guérin, an executive director at the European Climate Foundation, who was one of the top French officials at the Paris talks, added: “This is not putting the UK in an easy situation. It is very, very suboptimal. There is a lack of consistency between the UK’s domestic announcements and its international objective of success at the Cop.”
The PM’s actions at today’s virtual summit and at the G7 to be held in southwest England later this year will show how far the UK will live up to expectations.
Apart from the Australia report, there is no shortage of urgent indicators of the coming crisis. In the State of the Global Climate report from the World Meteorological Organisation intensification of the climate crisis is described as relentless.
Hottest on Record
Last year was ranked as the hottest on record, in a tie with 2016 and 2019, despite the cooling effect of La Niña. Without this, 2020 would most probably have been the hottest year yet. The decade 2011-20 was the hottest on record.
And the Global Energy Review from the IEA (International Energy Agency) warns that global energy-related CO2 emissions are heading for their second-largest annual increase ever - despite reduced economic activity as a result of COVID. Mind you, that could be a large increase from a low base, due to reduced activity in 2020. I’ll have to read the report.
Fossil Fuel Finance
Meanwhile banks continue to fund fossil fuels despite what their CEOs may be saying. Did you see the Barclays protest last week?
ClientEarth unveils The Greenwashing Files saying, “It’s never been more urgent for companies everywhere to be more sustainable. Yet the ‘green’ advertising of those companies most responsible for climate change and environmental damage is misleading the public about their sustainability.
“Following our world-first complaint against BP’s advertising, we've investigated some of the world's biggest fossil fuel companies and uncovered the truth. Our Greenwashing Files highlight how advertising doesn’t always match up to reality.”
There’s a link to the report below, where you’ll find information about Aramco, Chevron, Drax, Equinor, ExxonMobil, INEOS, RWE, Shell and Total.
Why did I call this episode “Dangerous Times”?
Because of the dangers from the climate crisis life as we know it and because of the dangers from governments to personal freedom.
The Right to Protest
In the UK, more than 2,000 people who took part in Extinction Rebellion protests are being taken through the court system in what experts say is one of the biggest crackdowns on protest in British legal history.
Some 400 scientists, including several who have appeared on the Sustainable Futures Report, signed an open letter this week warning that governments around the world are criminalising protesters at a pivotal time in the fight to tackle the escalating climate emergency. They also raised concern about efforts to silence climate protests in other parts of the world from the US to France, the Philippines to India.
Prof Julia Steinberger, a lead author with the IPCC who signed the letter, said governments had ignored scientists and the urgency of the climate crisis by claiming climate action was not politically popular.
She added “Thanks to the alarm raised by climate activists, this has changed – but instead of acting, many governments are choosing to shoot the messenger, by criminalising nonviolent protest. As scientists, we have a duty to stand with the activists who are paying attention to the science, rather than these governments, who seem to be more swayed by powerful economic interests than by the life chances of their own citizens.”
Contempt of Court
The Guardian newspaper published an article about the letter, but they have been warned that this could be contempt of court, in other words likely to prejudice an ongoing trial, and have withdrawn it. Other articles have been withdrawn on similar grounds. You’ll find a link below to the article - no longer on The Guardian’s website - and a link to the letter. I’m not sure whether I’m in contempt of court for telling you this.
For months and years protesters have been urging governments to listen to the science and to take action against the climate crisis. Now international leaders are making headlines about the things they say they’ll do and yet at the same time those who demand that words must be followed by actions are being locked up. In the face of this, can we truly believe that these politicians will do what they say they will do?
"Too close to vested interests"
One Guardian article that has not so far been suppressed says that UK PM Boris Johnson is too close to vested interests to take serious action. Peter Newell, a professor of international relations at the University of Sussex, said: “We are never going to have change while these actors are so close to government. The government is not willing to take on these interests as it has close ties to big industries, including fossil fuels. There is a definite reluctance to take them on.”
For those of my listeners who don’t follow the UK news closely, conflicts of interest, chumocracy and the awarding of contracts without competition to ministers’ friends has been a hot topic for the last couple of weeks. Former PM David Cameron’s backdoor approaches to civil servants and ministers at the highest level on behalf of a now-failed finance company seemed to be the high point, but that has since been followed by allegations of preferential tax arrangements for a major Tory donor promised by the present PM himself.
Lax Building Regulations
Professor Newell complains about lax building regulations which means owners need to spend money on retrofitting to bring their new homes up to an acceptable insulation standard.
Housebuilders and property developers gave more than £11m to the Tory party in the year after Johnson became prime minister.
Newell also cited SUVs. Carbon emissions from transport have barely budged in the last decade, largely because the savings from people switching to electric vehicles have been wiped out by the soaring sales of SUVs. The government could use the tax system to make SUVs less attractive, but instead has frozen fuel duty for more than a decade and is spending £27bn on new roads, the carbon emissions of which have been grossly underestimated, the Guardian has revealed.
Governments have the Power - we need to hold them to account
We live in dangerous times. As I’ve said before, only governments have the power to take the actions needed to solve the climate crisis and we need to hold them to account to make sure those actions are taken. If we do, we risk arrest. Remember, the 2,000 citizens going through the courts at present are being prosecuted under existing laws for non-violent protest. The Home Secretary’s new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill gives the police the power to decide whether a protest is legal or not. That includes the Metropolitan Police that suggested that XR, an organisation that specifically trains its supporters in non-violent protest, should be classed as a terrorist group. According to the new law, if a protest inconveniences anyone or makes too much noise the police can arrest anyone taking part.
Many parliamentarians, including Tories, spoke out against the bill. And then voted for it.
Dangerous times; dark days. I’ve never seen anything like this. The public are largely unaware of what’s going on. The danger is that they’ll stay unaware until it’s too late.
The Price of Freedom
The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, as the saying goes. The price of survival is eternal vigilance too, it seems.
And that’s it.
Apologies for the things I didn’t cover this week.
Oh, just before I go, here are three TV programmes worth watching.
From the BBC:
Greta Thunberg - A Year to Change the World. She says,
“I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen the science.”
Another episode of Climate Change: Ade on the Front Line, with Ade Adepitan. Look out for the dramatic predictions of the land lost to flooding by 2050 across Bangladesh and neighbouring countries.
From Apple TV (although made by BBC)
David Attenborough - The Year the Earth Changed. How nature has recovered in surprising ways during lockdown, without the noise and interference of human activity.
And that was the Sustainable Futures Report.
Hopefully there will be another one next week.
3 degrees in Australia
Fire and flood: 'Whole areas of Australia will be uninsurable'
US and China commit to cooperating on climate crisis
Climate talks will test Biden’s pledge to make global heating a priority
China & US climate