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Bill McKibben: As Bonn Climate Talks End World Leaders Set to 'Lock Us Into a Kind of Slow-Motion Guaranteed Catastrophe'

Climate

As 10 days of UN-sponsored climate talks came to an end in Bonn, Germany this morning, global campaigners demanding far-reaching solutions to the crisis of a warming planet expressed dissatisfaction on multiple levels, charging that the continued foot-dragging of governments is sentencing future generations to unparalleled catastrophe even as scientists issue grave new warnings about the dangers of inaction.

Climate activists inside the entryway of the UN-sponsored talks in Bonn, Germany as they staged a die-in to highlight the millions of lives that will be lost or impacted by continued government inaction on human-caused global warming. Photo credit: Friends of the Earth

As the final sessions concluded and the latest draft texts emerged from the talks, activists staged protests inside and outside of the convention center calling for bold action on climate and an "energy revolution" that would steer the world away from coal, oil, and gas and towards renewable sources like wind and solar.

Speaking on behalf of Friends of the Earth, Lucy Cadena, the group's climate justice and energy coordinator, said among the deepest frustrations is that while solutions are available to stave off the worst impacts of climate change, Bonn has once again proven that leaders from the most developed countries are unwilling to buck the fossil fuel industry and make the urgent transition to renewable energy sources.

"Climate change is upon us, and every increase in temperature causes more heatwaves, droughts and floods, killing thousands of people," Cadena said. "If developed country governments continue to drag their feet at the UN negotiations instead of taking immediate action, millions of people will pay for it with their lives. People around the world are already implementing real, proven solutions—community-controlled, renewable energy systems. The energy revolution has come of age, and our politicians must help implement it or fade into obsolescence along with the dirty energy systems they cling to."

Among the key issues that climate justice advocates say remain inadequately addressed: ambitious and binding emission-reduction targets for all nations, and the continued refusal of the most-developed nations to contribute financially to mechanisms that would see lesser-developed nations—where the people least responsible for climate change live—be compensated for the "loss and damage" they have suffered and will continue to experience in the future. As Gita Parihar, head of the legal team at Friends of the Earth-UK, explained in a blog post from Bonn, "This harm is becoming an everyday reality for developing countries, even though they are not responsible for the emissions causing it."

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And as Harjeet Singh, a campaigner for ActionAid, explained, "Africa, small island states and the least developed countries have unequivocally demanded that ‘loss and damage’ be part of the Paris deal. Even if we have 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, the impacts will continue for another 100 years. The Paris deal has to tackle the increasing climate damages, and not just the causes."

In a separate blog post, Singh expanded on this idea:

Rich nations, in particular the U.S., Canada, Japan and Australia, have been brushing off the demands of developing countries and civil society to act according to their responsibility for and fair shares of planet-warming emissions.

For decades, they neither reduced greenhouse gas emissions at home, nor provided adequate resources to developing countries to transform their energy systems and build resilience.

Future mass-scale litigation by developing countries in the International Court of Justice is not an impossibility.

Demanding compensation and reparations for the loss and damage caused due to rich nations’ inaction remains the only pivot to hold them to account. It will also drive action on mitigation and provide timely resources for adaptation to prevent further loss and damage.

"Negotiators avoided a show-down over crunch issues like finance and increasing near term emissions cuts, but they are only delaying the inevitable," said Jan Kowalzig, the climate change policy adviser for Oxfam International. "The G7 have set a powerful vision of a fossil fuel free future, but this is at odds with their limited ambition to reduce emissions in the short term. They also need to bring developing countries on board by being clear that developed countries will be first movers in the fossil fuel phase out, as well as by putting financing on the table to enable them to follow suit."

And when it comes to temperature targets, observers of the Bonn talks are again lamenting the flimsy nature of the commitments made. Though world governments have previously agreed to keep global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius this century, experts say that target is not possible given current trends or what nations have been willing to put on the table in terms of emissions cuts. As Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, wrote at Grist today, "At the moment [world leaders] look set to ratify a global temperature increase of three or four degrees Celsius—that is, to lock us into a kind of slow-motion guaranteed catastrophe."

Speaking of catastrophe, the Bonn talks were also the scene of new climate warnings from the scientific community, including from researchers who have been looking closely at the threat of frozen methane-hydrates, currently trapped in the world's layer of permafrost. If unleashed, these methane-hydrates could trigger a severe greenhouse gas and climate feedback loop. As Agence France-Presse reported this week:

There may be 1,500 billion tonnes of carbon locked away in permafrost—perennially frozen ground covering about a quarter of exposed land in the Northern Hemisphere, said Susan Natali, a researcher with the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts.

The carbon will be released incrementally as global temperatures rise on the back of soaring emissions from mankind's voracious burning of fossil fuels, making permafrost a vast and underestimated source of future greenhouse gas emissions, said Natali.

"By 2100 we expect 130 to 160 gigatons of carbon released into the atmosphere," Natali told journalists in Bonn. "That is on par with our current rate of U.S. emissions as a result of fossil fuel and cement production." [...]

The amount of carbon stored in permafrost, where it has accumulated over tens of thousands of years, is estimated to be about twice as much as that in the atmosphere, she said.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Bonn talks, Natali told AFP, "The actions that we take now in terms of our fossil fuel emissions are going to have a significant impact on how much permafrost is lost and in turn how much carbon is released from permafrost."

She added, "While there is some uncertainty, we know that permafrost carbon losses will be substantial, they will be irreversible."

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The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.

"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."

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On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor said nearly 60 percent of the state was abnormally dry, up from 46 percent just last week, according to The Mercury News in San Jose.

The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.

"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.

The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."

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