History shows us that it’s often seemingly unrelated or minor incidents that lead to the greatest turn of events or changes in our society. Think assassination of the Great Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the succeeding Great War in 1914. Or a Tsuname in West Aceh privince in Indonesia which left tens of thousands of dead and homeless in Sri Lanka and South India hours later. Sometimes it’s humans, sometimes it’s nature.
You might say that the USA, the world’s second largest CO2 emitting nation in the world, is hardly a minor player in Carbon Emissions. But if we roll forward to 2030, nations such as China, India, Indonesia and Brazil will have much larger economies than today, with far greater needs for energy. The Paris Accord calls for each of those nations to achieve emissions reductions while their need for energy continues to outpace the developed nations of North America, Europe and Australia.
The very direct and critical responses from two of Europe’s principal leaders, – France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, make clear that they will simply lift their efforts to transition to a renewables economy even further, as yet in undefined ways. These independent reactions are the first truly significant breakaways from acceptance of de-facto US leadership of Western democracy since the end of World War II in 1945.
But just as important are the clear declarations by US State Governors, Mayors and some of America’s most wealthy individuals that they will continue their shift to renewables, regardless of whether The US Federal Government is in or out of the 2015 Agreement. In any case as the US cannot leave the Accord until 2020, there is in fact a good chance that it may be a much less severe loss to the cause of cleaning up the environment than is first seen. There might be a new President in the White House! In the meantime Michael Bloomberg through The Bloomberg Foundation has offered to pay the UN any shortfall of the promised US$14-15M that the US Government is committed to contribute, so the UN work on Climate Change can continue uninterrupted by this US Government planned withdrawal.
In the 18 months since the COP21 Agreement of 2015 several indicators of accelerated Climate Change have become more evident. Australia’s Climate Council summarised very clearly what is needed within Australia to achieve a maximum temperature rise of the agreed 1.5° to 2ºC. There is some doubt as to whether Australia currently has done enough to achieve its agreed 26-28% emissions reduction. The government claims it will make changes to settings if there is any sign the country will fall short. Some of these are contained in the current review of the Australian RET (Renewable Energy Target.)
Preventing the establishment of the world’s largest coal mine proposed by Indian conglomerate Adani would certainly be a help. If it does proceed, as approval in Queensland on June 6th suggests, it may well become the world’s largest ‘Black Elephant’ in mankind’s history! It potentially might make almost every other coal mine in Australia uncompetitive in unit cost, thereby losing as many jobs elsewhere in Australia as it claims it will create. And, on completion, there may be few markets left for its output, especially as India’s government affirmed a redoubled commitment to its renewables push following the Trump announcement. Indian leader Narendra Modi has taken his country to a leadership position in recent years, despite concerns vested interests of coal-fired energy producers had sway.
What is very clear is that action has a ‘Must Be Done By’ time horizon. And its dangerously soon.
The Southern Hemisphere summers of 2015-16 and 2016-17 produced temperatures over 1 degree above long term averages. Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology Climate page reads like a book of broken records over successive seasons. These hot summers resulted in successive episodes of coral bleaching in The Great Barrier Reef, a phenomenon that has never occurred previously in recorded history. The frozen Arctic permafrost of Greenland has melted at such a rapid rate that the condition is now irreversible, say leading experts. The ten hottest years in recorded hsitory have all occurred since 1998, the most recent being 2015 followed by 2016!
In an article in the New Yorker magazine in October 2016, Elizabeth Kolbert describes the streams of melting 115,000 year old ice from the very highest points in the glaciers so frightening. In 2016 The melt started in April, earlier and at a rate never before seen.
The same can be said for the permafrost melt in Russia and the ever more frequent opening of the southern route of the NorthWest Passage between the Beaufort Sea around Greenland and Baffin Bay north west of Alaska. In a WIRED Magazine article in December 2016, writer Chelsea Leu summarises the risks and possible outcomes of the huge melt going on in the steppes of Russia. The methane release level and potential for pathogen escape are uncharted territory. Of course natural warming and cooling has occurred throughout history, as do quite long-cycle weather patterns. But recorded climate history has no record of all these changes occurring so fast or so continuously.
At the opposite end of the world, down on the Larsen C ice shelf, a 5,000 square kilometre iceberg is ‘hanging on by a thread’ as of early June 2017, according to scientists studying ice formation and melt in the Southern hemisphere, The Guardian newspaper reported this week. While Professor Adrian Luckman, of Swansea University is cautions that this may or may not be due to global warming, he says, “What happens to these ice shelves [of the Antarctic Peninsula] is in some ways a lesson for what might happen to the larger ice shelves that actually hold back ice from the main ice sheets – and that is potentially very significant into the far future.” Given all the events we are witnessing that ‘far future’ may be sooner than even the most pessimistic of forecasts have previously suggested.
Sea rise observations and predictions are not a recent phenomenon. In 2001 a study was released for Greater New York, prepared among others by The Center for Climate Systems Research, Columbia University and The Goddard Institute for Space Studies, amongst others. It illustrated the required mitigation efforts required for various sea level rises and the predicted reduction in intervals between 100-Year storm events. In a more recent study, released in 2009, a sea-rise map for the United States in multiple States and Cities shows a variety of outcomes, all of which show major, disruptive changes to habitable coastline areas, involving millions of residents. But even these estimates will vary considerably if the predicted changes in weather patterns, resulting from between a 1.5º and 2º average temperature rise, escalate major storm or cyclone/hurricane events.
So the future path thus far is one of fewer viable coral outcrops on the Great Barrier Reef, melting ice caps in Greenland, accelerating permafrost melting in Siberia, and ice-shelf breakdown in the Antarctic, with millions disrupted by rising sea levels over the next hundre years. It suggests something very major is happening. It coincides with the world tipping over 7 Billion inhabitants, a level 7 times greater than at the start of the Industrial revolution around 1800.
Despite the Trump decision, 189 nations of the world remain committed, even if Syria and the USA don’t. And Nicaragua, a non-signatory to the Paris Accord is actually even more committed. They simply felt the Accord falls way short of what the world should be signing up for. The digital-era news outlet Heavy quotes Dr. Paul Oquist, the Nicaraguan delegate to the COP21 Paris meetings: “We’re not going to submit because voluntary responsibilities are a path to failure,” Oquist said at the time.
Dr. Oquist continued, “It’s a failed mechanism that’s leading us down the road to 3 degrees Celsius, 4 degrees Celsius, 5 degrees Celsius. It’s a mechanism to let the target float. It’s like if you have a fixed interest rate and a floating interest rate and this will float according to whatever comes out of the INDCs. We don’t want to be accomplices to taking the world to 3 degrees Celsius to 4 degrees Celsius and the death and destruction that that represents.” It’s a view held by many smaller nations. Nicaragua reportedly contributes 0.003% of the world’s carbon emissions.
Perhaps encouragingly we have a US President who acknowledges that human population is influencing climate change, according to US United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley. But he wants to operate “without the constraints of Europe.” In fact the agreement is voluntary and unenforceable, which is hardly unfair. One gets the feeling that perhaps Trump and his immediate circle might not realise this. But, as a business person Trump would know that what you don’t measure is much harder to manage. Without goals few businesses achieve sustainability. And it’s just the same with the environment.
The decision by the US will not stop the innovative strides being taken for more efficient creation and use of energy, already on an unstoppable path, being seen around the world. In large part many of today’s major leaps forward can be traced back to some of the innovative work from the Rocky Mountain Institute, under co-founder and chief scientist, Amory Lovins. RMI has for three decades preached about improved energy efficiency, using less and improving the economy nationally and in the home. RMI’s achievements with the US Military and Walmart to mention just two clients have massively reduced oil demand through improved process and technology. The US has achieved over 17% oil import reductions over the past 2 decades, in part through local production, but mainly through reduced demand resulting from fleet efficiencies. That while the population has grown by over one third in the past 30 years.
The Trump decision will not stop the continuation of a trend that has led to the cost of Solar panels falling by 80% over the past 15 years, or the efficiency and costs of wind energy that have improved over 40% in a decade. It will not stop the innovations of university researchers such as those at the University of Newcastle, Australia, who have come up with a printable solar film. Under Professor Paul Dastoor they have a product that may only be currently 2% efficient versus the 14-18% of photovoltaic solar cells. But it’s also only $10 a square metre and requires very simple and known production capability. Nor will US government withdrawal from the Paris Accord quench the passion and idea gathering of WWF Australia, as evidenced in the Panda Labs initiative announced the day after Trump’s announcement. Their paper Can Technology Save The Planet? raises many related technology issues that may contribute to accelerated climate stbilisation solutions.
In China the adoption of renewables is gathering rapid pace – the country with the fastest uptake of renewables in the world, pro-rata to population. It’s also the world’s largest emitter of CO2, and the country with the most frequent violations of safe WHO (World Health Organisation) air pollution levels -from coal dust, vehicle particulates, factory chemical output and photo-chemical smog. By contrast, in 2015 Energy Post online reported that China has now become the Number One publisher of Scientific papers in Climate Science and Renewables. This pace appears to have accelerated as Beijing experiences successive days of severe polluion requiring government bans on factory operation and more.
To understand how this emphasis is driven: Just look at the Chinese government leadership – technocrats, scientists and engineers. It starts at the top, but is supported by a depth of skill and understanding of the complex issues of climate science in the laboratories and universities across China.
And in the US and around the world there’s more good news. Companies are more and more vocal about the economic benefits of renewables. With over two million employed in the US Renewables industry alone, it’s creating far more jobs than will be lost in the underground or Open-cut coal mines of the USA. Globally the figure is over 9 million, according to CNBC. Employment in Solar and Wind alone has doubled in the past two years. That’s real job creation, and cleaner air and lower emissions. With battery storage now a reality a stable base-load electricity generation system becomes more and more practical, as well as affordable. Since President Trump announced withdrawal from COP21, city leaders across the USA have countered with re-commitments to meet targets. Pittsburgh, a city that Trump stated he was representing, reaffirmed its intent to achieve 100% renewable energy gneration by 2035, if not sooner. Mayor Bill Peduto Tweeted, “As the Mayor of Pittsburgh, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy & future.”
And as for leadership elsewhere? Well, France’s new President, Emmanuel Macron, (someone almost half Trump’s age, and who will likely experience many of the effects of Climate Change in his lifetime, long after Trump is no longer alive,) – used Twitter to create the most re-Tweeted message in history in any 24-hour period. He took to the air in English to get his clear message across. He even invited disappointed and potentially unemployed American scientists to come to France, to help ‘Make the Earth Great Again.’
“You will find in France a second homeland. I call on them [American Scientists]: Come here with us to work together on concrete solutions for our climate.”
All Rights Reserved. © Copyright John Swainston, 2017, Australia.
[This article has been progressively updated in the days since initial publication, as the world dismissed President Trump’s statement and reaffirmed redoubled efforts to achieve goals committed to in Paris in November 2015.] – John S.