‘Our War Against Nature Must Stop’: UN Secretary General Launches COP25 With Urgent Call for Climate Action
COP25, the UN Climate Change Conference, begins today in Madrid, and UN Secretary-General António Guterres wants everyone to know the stakes are high.
"[C]limate change is no longer a long-term problem. We are confronted now with a global climate crisis," Guterres said before the conference on Sunday. "The point of no-return is no longer over the horizon. It is in sight and hurtling towards us."
The human species has been at war with the planet. Now the planet is fighting back. Climate change has escalated… https://t.co/Rn2W12utOO— António Guterres (@António Guterres)1575236339.0
The conference, which will run from Dec. 2 to 13, follows on the heels of two dire climate reports released last week. The World Meteorological Association announced that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in 2018 had reached their highest point in three to five million years. And a UN study found that countries must lower greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6 percent per year for the next decade in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Climate leaders hope that countries will up the ambitions of their Paris agreement pledges in Madrid, ahead of the 2020 deadline to do so, BBC News explained.
"Some 70 countries have pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050, this must be carried on at Madrid COP," Sonam Wangdi, the Chair of the Least Developed Countries (LDC) group in UN climate change negotiations, told BBC News. "There must be an agreement among us all to do our fair share. If it doesn't happen in Madrid it could be too late for 2020 pledges."
When the Paris agreement was reached in 2015, the Associated Press explained, world leaders said they would limit warming to below two degrees celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, with an ideal goal of limiting it to 1.5 degrees. But the emissions reductions pledges currently on the books would still lead to a temperature rise of more than three degrees Celsius, Guterres pointed out Sunday, and many countries are not even meeting these inadequate commitments.
"Our war against nature must stop," Guterres said.
Conference chair and Chilean environment minister Carolina Schmidt echoed Guterres' sense of urgency in her opening remarks Monday, calling on attendees to acknowledge the severity of the climate crisis.
"Those who don't want to see it will be on the wrong side of history," she said, as the Associated Press reported.
Newly elected President of the @UN #ClimateChange Conference #COP25 in Madrid, @CarolaSchmidtZ, says that people ne… https://t.co/UHBRNbebew— UN Climate Change (@UN Climate Change)1575272937.0
In addition to emissions reductions, there are two other major issues that need to be ironed out at the conference, BBC News explained.
The first is whether there will be a fund established to pay for climate-related losses and damages that cannot be prevented or mitigated, like a certain amount of sea level rise. Developing countries say they need help paying for a crisis they did little to solve, but wealthy countries are worried about being on the books for centuries of extreme weather and coastal flooding to come.
"The climate crisis has been causing death, despair and displacement in the global south," Harjeet Singh from Action Aid told BBC News. "This bullying of the countries hardest hit by climate change, by those that got rich from extracting and consuming fossil fuels, must end now."
The second issue is how to establish new rules for carbon markets under Article 6 of the Paris agreement. The issue was supposed to be resolved at COP24 in Katowice, Poland last year, but parties could not come to an agreement.
"I don't even want to entertain the possibility that we do not agree on Article 6," Guterres said, according to Reuters. "We are here to approve guidelines to implement Article 6, not to find excuses not to do it."
Around 29,000 scientists, negotiators, activists and leaders, including around 50 heads of state, are expected to attend, according to the Associated Press.
Of the world's top emitters, only the EU is sending senior leadership. The U.S., China and India are all sending lower level officials or ministers.
President Donald Trump has begun the process of withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris agreement, but Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will lead a delegation to the talks.
"While it's great Speaker Pelosi is coming to Madrid in place of Trump, symbolic gestures are no substitute for bold action," Jean Su from the Center for Biological Diversity told BBC News. "America remains the number one historic contributor to the climate emergency, and even Democratic politicians have never committed to taking responsibility for our fair share."
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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