” We are in ‘injury time’ for 2°C – and things are not looking good. However, time will continue regardless even if we blow the 2°C carbon budget, we still need to drive even harder for deep and rapid mitigation alongside preparing for the regional impacts of a 4, 5 or even 6°C future. But we must note that adaptation to such a future scenario will never be sufficient for the many millions who will suffer and die as a consequence of the fossil fuelled hedonism enjoyed by relatively few of us – including me and very likely anyone reading this; we are the high emitters who have explicitly chosen not to care.”
Professor Kevin Anderson, Chair in Energy and Climate Change at the School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering at the University of Manchester. Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.
The term ‘climate change’ was used for the very first time in 1956 when the physicist Gilbert Plass published a seminal study called ‘The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climatic Change’. Although it was sixty years earlier, in 1896, when the first calculation of global warming from human emissions of carbon dioxide was published by a Swedish scientist and engineer known as Arrhenius, Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He claimed that fossil fuel combustion led to temperature rise due to the emission of gasses such as CO2 and might eventually result in enhance global warming. Before that, before industrial activities started the unstoppable revolution, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere was nearly constant at 280 ppm, this level represented a balance among the atmosphere, the oceans and the biosphere. Since 1750 the concentration of carbon dioxide has increase exponentially until last September officially passed the 400 ppm line, that according to the experts we will never return below it in our lifetimes.
One may ask why we always talk about global warming when in fact many places around the world are experiencing colder and longer winters, for instance, last February the images of a frozen Central Park in New York were shown in the news around the globe, the coldest winter ever recorded in the big apple. Well, the answer is truly simple, global warming refers to the average increase of temperatures at global scale due to greenhouse gases emissions, mainly CO2. Different areas of the world are experiencing very different effects but the fact is that the Earth’s temperature has increased almost 1°C since the late 1800s, of which the majority of this warming has occurred during the last 30 years. The NASA has recorded temperatures for 134 years, according to this record, all but one of the 16 hottest years have occurred since 2000. As Dr. Gavin Schmidt, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, put it ‘Humanity is about to experience a historically unprecedented spike in temperatures’.
Climate change is no other thing than the consequence of this global warming. The rise of global temperature due to the emissions of GHG’s and the subsequently altered balance between the atmosphere, the oceans and the biosphere, is affecting our planet in a way that climate patterns, as we knew them, are completely changing.
Last September the Arctic just reached another record of ice loss since satellites began monitoring it in 1978. In contrast, the Antarctic Sea ice has also reached another new record but this one of maximum extension. The Arctic and the Antarctic work as an air conditioner for the Earth system and react in opposite ways, nonetheless the decreases in Arctic’s ice far exceed the increases in Antarctic’s as NASA studies show. This ice loss is accelerating sea level rising, as stated in a recent article of National Geographic; ‘The Global Mean Sea Level (GMSL) has risen by 4 to 8 inches. However, the annual rate of rise over the past 20 years has been 0.13 inches a year, roughly twice the average speed of the preceding 80 years’.
Extreme weather and shifting rainfall are taking place all over the world. Some areas such as Africa are becoming drier suffering continuous drought and wildfires, other areas are suffering more extreme precipitations like the south east of Asia causing frequent flash floods and others are having records on winter snowfall as recently happened in Canada. Moreover, natural disasters in the daily news have become as usual as the stock markets reports; Tsunami in Sumatra 2004, Hurricane Katrina in the US 2005, earthquakes in Pakistan 2005, China 2008, Haiti 2010 and Nepal 2015, Typhoon in the Philippines 2014, Hurricane Patricia in Mexico 2015, Hurricane Mathew in Haiti 2016 and countless more including the week ago earthquake in New Zeeland, the severe floods that just hit the Dominican Republic and the Hurricane Otto that we are waiting right now in Nicaragua.
Despite of all the undeniable evidences and with an overwhelming 97% of scientist in the world deeply worried about the issue and demanding governments around the globe to take responsibility and action, we still have to waste time fighting against climate change skeptics and deniers, against big and powerful corporations, and lamentably, we do not have any time to waste. According to climate experts we just have 8 years to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Furthermore, the world famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently affirmed that humanity has around 1000 years left on Earth and some other scientist go even further as engineer David Auerbach who, about a year ago, said that humans will be extinct in 100 years.
To the affirmations that climate change is a swindle, that global warming is nothing new, that the climate has always been changing and is just the natural cycle of the Earth or that there’s always been natural phenomenon such as hurricanes and storms, there is a very simple argument to put on the table, the big concern is not the changing climate, the problem is the speed at which these changes are taking place. Climatologist and experts find unpredicted data and events every day that exceed even the most pessimistic predictions. The evidences of the anthropogenic origin of climate change are countless and irrefutable, such is the case that a working group of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy presented a proposition to the International Geological Congress last August in which they defend that due to the profound changes that our planet has undergone the current geological epoch, the Holocene, must give way to a new epoch, the Anthropocene, advising that this one should start in 1950.
When you study International Development, especially if you focus on environmental matters as I do, one of the first things they tell you is that climate change affects the poorest the most. Something that seems obvious if you just think about it, but the unfair reality is that nobody does. The ones with less responsibility on causing this problem, since they do not pollute at a comparable level developed countries do, are the ones who have to suffered its consequences under a huge lack of resources that makes tremendously difficult the mitigation and/or adaption to its effects threatening their natural resources, their livelihoods, their homes, their villages and even their lives.
When I was living in Tanzania, I truly understood to what extent climate change is affecting the daily life of the poorest people. I carried out a study about these effects in the village of Ng’wandakw and the city nearby Haydom, interviewing many people from different backgrounds. One of the main findings, as expected, was the notably decrease of precipitation and increase of temperatures in the past 10 years. The people of this area are really struggling to cope with the lack of water. I could experience this struggle in my own skin. The family I was living with did not have tap water, as the majority of the households in the village, in the past they mainly collected rain water and stored it in tanks outside the house, now most of the time they have to buy it with the subsequent impact that this is having in their family budget. In many occasions the water available was scarce and I had to decide if I was going to use it to drink, to wash my body or my clothes. We did not have tap water at the office either, when we couldn’t find water vendors, myself and some of my volunteers had to stop working and search for water ourselves walking to the public taps and carrying the heavy 25 litres jerry cans on our way back about 2 or 3 kilometres. Well, to be honest I just did it once to verify that I’m not strong enough to make such an effort but sadly this is the daily life of many children and women around the village. Many people simply cannot afford to buy water from the taps – approximately 300 Tanzanian shilling per jerry can, only 0.13 euros- and have no other choice than to collect it from muddy and dirty puddles. However, this is not the only problem they have to face, this lack of water alongside the degradation and deforestation of the land is making very difficult the life of a village in which 80% of its inhabitants are farmers and depend directly from its natural resources. Furthermore, they also have to deal with the diseases exacerbated by the high temperatures. I could witnessed an outbreak of cholera during my time there; On a random Sunday I was in a restaurant in Haydom having lunch when the local authorities arrived and start talking to the owner and everyone around very loudly, I asked my Tanzanian volunteers to translate the situation, they were closing all the restaurants and markets of the area in an attempt to stop the spread of the waterborne disease. Lamentably, about 25.000 cases and 378 deaths in country were reported to the WHO as of April 2016.
In the Community of San Pedro, in Nicaragua, where I am currently living and volunteering, the issue more than the lack of water is the unpredictable weather. The rainfall patterns have become difficult to forecast, and the people of the Community don’t know what to expect anymore. Sometimes the rain is much heavier than usual causing damage to the properties and land, and sometimes it just doesn’t happen. Last summer, the three sources of water that supply the community did dry for the very first time the inhabitants of San Pedro can recall and they had to go to the closest river, River Tapasle, to cover their needs. They fear that this might happen again this summer and during the following years, for this reason they have just acquired a source of water of larger capacity located in a neighbouring municipality, at approximately 15 kilometres away, to be able to carry on with the project to improve the water supply system and finally have access to safe water. On the other hand, as Don Victor – one of the leaders of the community, a small farmer & stockbreeder who also teaches in the technical centre of Matagalpa- explained to me, due to the changes in the weather patterns the community is experiencing temperatures considerably higher combined with random and unpredictable extreme precipitations that are stressing the crops and last years they lost the whole harvest in the area. Don Victor works actively in a local project, Bread for the World, which try to find alternatives to adapt to the challenges that climate change is bringing to his community. Another big concern for him is the worrisome deforestation in the area carried out by few big ranchers, for intensive livestock farming, who seem to ignore the complains and difficulties of the small farmers.
Last June I spent a month travelling around Vietnam. When I arrived to the country I was astonished by the level of development of the big cities, the quantity of motorbikes and the number of Vietnamese wearing face masks; I asked few people about the reason for it, the answer was to protect themselves from the sunlight and from the high pollution in the air. I remember thinking to myself that they were a bit overreacting, after all we were in Hanoi not in Beijing. After a quick search on the internet I could find out that such air pollution in big cities, as Hanoi or Ho Chi Min, had recently reached unhealthy levels with concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) twice the permitted level due mainly to traffic and industrial activities, such as coal mining and thermal power plants, according to a report from the Vietnam Environment Administration. Maybe they weren’t overreacting and maybe we weren’t in China but definitely in a part of the world full of countries following and repeating the dangerous steps of its neighbour’s fast and unsustainable development.
But I didn’t need to go to developing countries to see the effects of climate change. Right after I moved from Sheffield, at the end of December 2015, the excessive rainfall in the north of the UK caused terrible flooding in the area with homes evacuated in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and rivers overflowing in Manchester and Leeds, and many more have hit the country this year. Last summer I was driving along one of my favourite’s places in the world, Parque Natural Cabo de Gata- in the city where I am from, Almería- in the south east of Spain, looking around me completely heartbroken. The terrible drought and the environmental degradation alongside with a parasite plague, Conchinilla del Carmín, that is killing the most iconic vegetation of the area, chumberas and pitas, are transforming the landscape from a beautiful semi desertic land to an image that well could be the set of an apocalyptic Mad Max’s scene. According to the local environmental group, Ecologistas en Acción, this plague appeared for first time in 2007 in the city nearby Murcia and since then due to the high and continues temperatures- that are allowing many plagues to survive longer- it has been expanding across all over Andalucía, reaching even the highest places, threatening to destroy completely the typical plants of this area.
And so the list goes… I could carry on explaining many examples about the consequences of climate change that I have seen with my own eyes in the past few years in every place I have been to, and so do you. You don’t need to be an engineer, a scientist or an expert, you just need to open your eyes and care.
According to UNHCR, United Nations Refugee Agency, one person every second has been displaced by a disaster since 2009, on average of 22.5 million people are displaced by climate or weather related events every year and it is predicted that climate displaced reach 200 million by 2050. The WHO estimates that climate change contributes to more than 150,000 deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress, and 5 million illnesses annually; between 2030 and 2050 those numbers are expected to double.
Climate change is affecting everything, everyone, everywhere. Is time to achieve climate justice and to do that we need to assume that the consequences that global warming is having in our planet and in the lives of millions are not just an ecological issue anymore, the right to live in a healthy environment is not only a nature right but also a human right and therefore climate change must be understood as an ethical issue, as a matter of equality and social justice.
For years politicians, diplomats, institutions, investors, businesses, NGO’s, activist and citizens groups have gathered at the annual United Nations Framework Conventions on Climate Change, UNFCCC, to discuss about the global challenges and solutions of an undeniable changing climate. An extremely slow and difficult path from COP1 celebrated in Berlin in 1995, going through milestones as COP3 where the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997 by 84 countries, or complete failures such as the 2009 COP15 in Copenhagen where only a meaningless agreement was reached; Until COP21, when finally the US and China, the two most polluting countries in the world that had been for years refusing to commit to reduce their carbon emission, lead a group of 197 countries to sign the historical Paris Agreement that came into force last 4th of November. A deal to end with the fossil fuel era where governments around the world agree to put in place the necessary measures to maintain the global warming below 2°C above preindustrial levels with a commitment to aim for 1.5°C.
While I am writing this post, the 22nd UNFCCC or Conference of the Parties, COP22, is being closed in Marrakech. The aim of this conference was to discuss about the implementation of the Paris Agreement. On the 9th of November the world and the environmental summit woke up with the shocking news of Trump’s presidency, a climate change denier in the White House. Trump campaigned for months promising to his voters to remove the US from the Paris Agreement and to cut all the expending on programs to fight climate change. Furthermore, he named another well-known denier, Myron Ebell, to make the Environmental Protective Agency transition. I personally couldn’t sleep that night, nevertheless today, despite of all the uncertainty that his administration brings, to not only the environment but the entire financial and geopolitical structure of the world, there are few things that make me stay positive.
World leaders have promptly advice Mr. Trump about the consequences of withdrawing the US from Paris accord. Firstly, although the agreement is not binding it has been already ratified by the current president Barack Obama and it would take 4 years to Trump’s administration to scrap it. Secondly, as reassured during the conference the world is already moving towards clean technology, US businesses are in line with the rest of the world and with the market forces that are driving the transition to a sustainable economy, renewables energies are becoming rapidly cost-competitive with any other form of energy and that is something not even a president can change. Thirdly, main trade US partners such as Canada, México and the EU have declared their intentions on putting a carbon tax on US goods if they do not comply with the agreement increasing considerably the cost of their international transactions. Finally, as of today the agreement have been ratified by 111 countries including some countries whose leaders have being playing with scepticism such Australia and Canada, the oil-riches UAE and Venezuela and the last one in doing so the UK, with an image of Foreign Secretary and brexiter Boris Johnson- who also put in doubt climate change in the past- stamping his signature sending a powerful message to the US elected president.
At Marrakech conference nobody can deny that a global effort to tackle climate change is taking place, more than 180 of the 197 countries have volunteered national plans to combat climate change, but this is not enough. Few days before the conference started the UNEP, United Nation Environmental Program, released their annual report on global emissions in which they predict that the temperature of the world will rise up to 3.4 degrees even if the pledges of the Paris agreement are fully implemented, and urges world leaders to commit to increase massively the reduction of their carbon emissions.
It seems that we are moving in the right direction, however, all these efforts must be double even triple if we want to have a chance to protect the planet and this process includes you. Climate change cannot be tackle only in annual climate conferences and government’s meeting rooms, this is not a problem just for scientist and experts to fix; Climate change must be fought in every corner of the globe, at every level, by all of us, every citizen of this world have a key role to play on this battle. We need our society to wake up and realise the magnitude of the problem, avoiding the issue is no longer an option.
I’ve seen countless documentaries about climate change in the past 10 or 15 years from specifics ones on fossil fuels such as ‘Crude Impact’ or ‘Gasland’, on migration as ‘Climate Refugees’, even skeptics ones like ‘The Global Warming Swindle’ to more recents such as the pessimistic ‘10 billion’ or the famous just released by National Geographic and Leonardo Di Caprio’s ‘Before the flood’. Among all of them I’ve chosen my top 1 to share at the bottom of this post; ‘HOME’, a documentary from 2009 produced by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, which regardless of not being the most updated is the first one I always recommend to raise awareness. The documentary explains life on Earth from its primitive forms and shows how humans have influenced the course of nature through incredible aerial images of our stunning and beautiful planet combined with powerful music that I hope you take some time to watch and get inspired to choose to care, to choose to act.