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Will the weather eventually provoke radical action on climate?

OPINION: It could take a catastrophic weather event in the Global North to bring real action on climate breakdown

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
6 January 2023, 4.23pm
Cars stranded in Buffalo, New York, in the aftermath of Storm Elliott
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Lancaster NY Police Department/ZUMA Press Wire/Alamy Stock Photo

With two world summits on the global environment at the end of last year – COP27 and COP15 – there should have been the prospect of an immediate impact on the looming disaster of climate breakdown.

In reality, results were limited at best.

COP27 on climate change did agree to a ‘loss and damage’ fund that acknowledged the role of long-term emitters in the industrial world and the need for them to aid countries across the Global South.

Funding was proposed for accelerating the transition to renewable energy while responding to the impact of current and future climate disasters. What was lacking was any firm timescale and, even more importantly, COP27 did not secure an across-the-board commitment in the Global North to rapid decarbonisation.

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Just weeks after the summit, extreme weather events brought home the gravity of the situation. Severe floods in Brazil were followed by a devastating storm in the Philippines, bringing more floods and landslides. Then came Storm Elliott, causing destruction and scores of deaths across much of the United States and Canada. Scary events during the storm included sudden and unprecedented drops in temperature, with one temperature station in Cheyenne, Wyoming, recording a record 22°C drop in just 30 minutes.

Then it was Europe’s turn, not for snow storms but the opposite: record high temperatures, 15°C or more above normal, and ski resorts closed by rain. “We had a very warm new year last year, but this blows that out of the water,” said UK meteorologist Scott Duncan. “We observed long-standing records broken by large margins across several countries.”

Three years ago, the UN Environment Programme’s Emissions Gap Report 2019 said a 7.6% per annum decrease in emissions was required throughout the 2020s to bring carbon dioxide concentrations down sufficiently to keep the global temperature rise to 1.5°C. Instead, emissions are still increasing. Three years of the decade have been lost and the yearly decarbonising rate now has to be closer to 10% to achieve the 1.5°C goal. No such commitment was made at COP27.

While COP27 failed to tackle its most crucial issue, the Biodiversity COP15 summit did result in an agreement to protect 30% of the world’s land ocean areas by 2030, reversing a biodiversity loss that has been going on for as many decades. This is good in theory but lacks detail and has few clear commitments on funding. Without those, it means little.

As their names reveal, neither COP27 nor COP15 were one-offs, and the existence of regular summits is a reflection of a long-term, growing awareness of the need for systemic change. Knowledge of what has to be done is clear enough, but the forces aligned to stymie change are massive, from political systems unable to embrace immediate action to prevent longer-term disaster to the deeply embedded and powerful interests of fossil carbon producers determined to maintain their immense profits.

That radical and rapid decarbonisation has to happen is clear enough, just as is the failure of the two summits, but are there are lessons to learn from three previous summits in the more distant past? To know this we need to go back 50 years, to the early 1970s. It was a time when the world economy was in turmoil, with oil prices rising over 400% in seven months from October 1973, a developing global food shortage, and rising concern over the state of the global environment.

One temperature station in Cheyenne, Wyoming, recorded a record 22°C drop in just 30 minutes

By early 1974, there was a sudden and potentially disastrous scarcity of food, especially grains such as wheat, rice and maize, affecting at least 30 countries across the Global South and threatening tens of millions of people with famine. There weren’t overall shortages: average world grain reserves were down to half the usual level but there was still more than enough to go round. Then, as is so often the case now, poverty was at the root of the problem, made worse by costs inflated by speculator activities.

In response, the UN organised the World Food Conference in Rome in November 1974, charged with filling the ‘grain gap’ and tackling a parallel fertiliser shortage, while also planning for a longer-term boost in farming outputs across the Global South.

The immediate outcomes were bitterly disappointing as neither grain nor fertiliser requirements were met, and even the farming boost got too little support among potential funders. Yet the feared famine did not materialise. This was mainly because the very act of focusing on the problem in Rome brought home to politicians in a few countries – Canada, Sweden, the Netherlands, the UK and some newly wealthy Gulf oil producers – that a crisis was unfolding, and the resources were eventually forthcoming for the world food system to muddle through.

Earlier in 1974, the UN had held the month-long Sixth Special Session of the General Assembly to focus on the wild fluctuations in commodity prices affecting richer as well as poorer countries. This appeared to achieve something in what became known as the Declaration on a New International Economic Order, which could have ensured a welcome degree of stability of longer-term benefit to the many producers of raw materials across the Global South. In the event, commodity prices fell, pressure on the main industrial economies largely evaporated by 1976 and little came of the proposals.

The third summit – the first UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972 – was much less specific. It reflected the growing awareness of environmental problems that primarily affected richer industrial states and was initially criticised as such by countries across the Global South. However, the event was much affected by the publication of a seminal book, ‘Limits to Growth’, presenting the issue as a truly global problem. This gave it an enduring impact, even if the later 1970s saw the rise of neoliberal market fundamentalism that set us back more than 20 years.

The Stockholm environment conference did at least set the scene for later developments, even if many have been so slow, leading us to the current climate breakdown crisis. The UN Special Session seemed to succeed initially but came apart as the old economic order triumphed. On the other hand, the food summit seemed to fail at the time but so raised concerns that famine was narrowly avoided – a limited success at least.

Coming back to the present, could it be that the 1974 World Food Congress, with its unexpected effect of raising consciousness, has set a precedent for what comes next?

There are certainly some signs of change and I wrote last year of some developments that support this. One is that climate science has received greatly increased research funding in recent years, and another is that the public mood for political action is changing in many parts of the world. Alongside this are the major successes in developing much cheaper technologies for exploiting renewable energy resources. That will not be enough, but there is one way in which it could all change – the weather itself, bearing in mind the concentrated experience of extreme weather events in just the past month.

To be blunt, climate forecasters have for years pointed to increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events and that is now happening, repeatedly and across the world. Moreover, we have still not yet had a truly massive weather disaster affecting a rich country.

At some stage, and looking at current trends, the chances are that sometime in the next decade, quite probably in the late 2020s, there will be a catastrophe. A city, most likely on or close to the coast, such as Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Shanghai or Tokyo will experience such intense and sudden destruction that many thousands will be killed and hundreds of billions of dollars of destruction left in its wake.

It is a very uncomfortable conclusion to reach that only such a wake-up call will be enough to spur radical and systemic action, but we may have gone too far for anything else.

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