A person walking across a field with thick smoke coming out of a factory in the background / Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Are we facing a climate-change apocalypse?

“Right now, we are facing a manmade disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

These were the words spoken by famed TV naturalist, Sir David Attenborough, at the conference known as ‘COP24’ in Katowice, Poland at the beginning of December. Leaders assembled for two weeks of negotiations in an attempt to establish a set of rules to follow, as they implement the 2015 Paris climate agreement targets. The summit followed the publication of an alarming report published by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which claimed that we have only 12 years left to limit the catastrophic effects of climate change. In order to achieve this, global warming must be kept to a maximum of 1.5C. However, we’re currently on course for a warming of 3C.

The COP24 United Nations Climate Change Conference took place in December 2018 in Katowice, Poland

The COP24 United Nations Climate Change Conference took place in December 2018 in Katowice, Poland (Image: IRENA/Flickr)

2018 saw an almost constant slew of extreme weather events. This summer, record temperatures were seen across Europe – a heatwave which the Met Office says was 30 times more likely because of climate change. In Japan, severe floods led to the deaths of 200 people and prompted evacuations of millions from their homes in July. Just days later, 65 people died in a heatwave that hospitalised more than 20,000 people. These events contributed to the Japanese public voting for the character of ‘disaster’ to symbolise 2018.

In August, the South Indian state of Kerala experienced its worst floods for a century, costing the lives of around 500 people. In the US, Hurricanes Florence and Michael caused massive destruction during the Atlantic storm season, whilst Super Typhoons Mangkhut and Yutu triggered devastation in the Philippines, Guam, South China and the Mariana Islands. And just last autumn, the worst wildfires on record raged in California, leaving thousands still without housing.

The cost of the damage caused by these events runs into the tens of billions of pounds, and all the disasters are widely believed to have been caused or worsened by climate change.  

The consequences for animals and plant life is now being reported as catastrophic. Research has demonstrated that the planet is in the midst of an extinction crisis caused by human activity, with the most significant species die-off since the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Moreover, the impact on health is also coming to light. In August 2018, leading medical journal The Lancet published a report on the dangers of climate change to human health, with one of the authors, Renee Salas, describing climate change as a “medical emergency”.

In the climate emergency we’re now in, slow success is no success

–  Durwood Zaelke, President of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development (IGSD)

The scale of damage this year was addressed by the UN Secretary, General António Guterres, at the COP24 summit: “Climate change is running faster than we are and we must catch up sooner rather than later before it is too late. For many, people, regions and even countries this is already a matter of life or death.”

Despite this, governments continue to implement and promote policies that damage the environment. There was even controversy at the opening of the COP24 summit when host nation Poland boasted that it was sitting on 200 years’ worth of coal supplies, claiming that “it will be hard not to use them”.

Furthermore, a bloc of four oil-producing countries – the US, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Kuwait – insisted that the facts in the IPPC’s report be merely “noted”. The most powerful leader in the world, US President Donald Trump, has publicly denied the existence of climate change, stating that the California wildfires could have been prevented if the affected forests had simply been raked more.

Meanwhile, Australia reaffirmed its commitment to coal at the summit by being the only nation to appear at a US government-run event promoting the use of fossil fuels, while Brazil’s President-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, has plans to accelerate mining and agribusiness in the country through the exploitation of the Amazon rainforest. Here in the UK, the government’s new environmental bill, which emerged last month, was widely criticised as “weak”.

It’s difficult to see how we can win the fight against climate change when key players refuse to move from the bench.

The end of the conference was delayed due to disagreements over the awarding of carbon credits. Eventually countries managed to come to a decision on most of the elements of the Paris ‘rulebook’, including how governments will measure, report and verify their emissions-cutting efforts. However, exactly how countries will improve upon their targets to move lower than the projected 3C was left uncertain. The UN plan to meet again in Chile in December 2019 and the final deadlines for current emissions commitments must be met in 2020.

Leading experts in climate science and economics have voiced their concerns and feel that more must be done, and quickly. Johan Rockström, Director Designate at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research said that his “biggest concern is that the UN talks failed to align ambitions with science. We continue to follow a path that will take us to a very dangerous 3-4C warmer world within this century”. In addition, Durwood Zaelke, President of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development (IGSD), said of the talks: “In the climate emergency we’re now in, slow success is no success.”

We have the ways… What we need is the political will to move forward

–  António Guterres, UN Secretary General

While it should be noted that the leaders and policy-makers currently making the crucial decisions on  environmental protection and climate have been elected by the people, the people have also demonstrated a rapidly growing desire for more action – and more action right now – on saving the planet than ever before.

15-year-old Greta Thunberg from Sweden made one of the most inspiring speeches of the summit, telling leaders that they are “not mature enough to tell it like is” and that they are “stealing [the] future” of children “in front of their very eyes”. She stated: “We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.” Greta has been on strike from school since the 9 September 2018 and inspired rebellion within schools across Australia at the end of November. A reported 15,000 school children walked out of their classrooms and joined protests against current climate action under the nationwide campaign, ‘School Strike 4 Climate Action’.

The way that the climate crisis is being reported has also been brought into focus. A few days before Christmas, the BBC’s central London headquarters and other BBC offices across the UK were put on lockdown due to protests by the action group Extinction Rebellion. Launched in October, the group – who have made headlines for blocking major roads and occupying bridges in London – called on the BBC (who have been heavily criticized this year for giving air time to climate-change deniers) to make the environment its “top editorial issue” and demanded that the broadcaster declare a “climate and ecological emergency”.

It seems clear then that, in making demands for action, the people believe that more can be done. The question now is whether our leaders will in fact do what is needed. “We have the ways…What we need is the political will to move forward,” UN Secretary General António Guterres aptly said in Katowice.

The UN announced ahead of COP24 that they would be choosing figures to attend the conference in the ‘People’s seat’, as advocates for the general public. Sir David Attenborough was one of these advocates and implored policy-makers at the conference: “The world’s people have spoken. Time is running out. They want you, the decision-makers, to act now.”

After the conference had ended and celebrations for the new year began to get underway, The Guardian published a very fitting cartoon, warning of the encroaching threat of climate change. It depicts a figure, a baby symbolizing the new year, reading from a list of the world’s woes, which include Brexit, Trump’s border wall and Putin’s threat to democracy. Yet, in focusing its attention on these issues the figure blissfully ignores the grim reaper sat in front of its path, who holds a timer and brandishes a scythe with the words ‘climate change’.

The message, as we head into 2019, is clear: if the world’s decision-makers don’t treat climate change as the priority that it is, Earth and its inhabitants may very much be facing a kind of apocalypse.


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