Environment: COP’s over but climate change is like ‘ol man river …’,

Dec 4, 2022
Australia as seen from space.

‘… he just keeps rolling along’, destroying homes, communities, health and farming.

Lancet Countdown report on health and climate change

Following the Paris climate agreement in 2015, The Lancet medical journal established the Lancet Countdown to track progress on health, climate change and climate action. On October 26th, the Countdown’s annual report for 2022 (‘Health at the Mercy of Fossil Fuels’) was released. The report’s headline conclusion is that ‘This year’s report finds that a persistent fossil fuel addiction is amplifying the health impacts of the current crises we face’.

The health impacts highlighted in an interactive infographic include:

  • Increasing exposure of populations to heatwaves; increasing heat-related mortality; increasing loss of labour hours and income due to heat; increasing moderate and severe food insecurity due to more heatwaves occurring during crop growing seasons and droughts affecting more land. The most underdeveloped countries and the most vulnerable individuals suffer the greatest ill-effects.
  • Life-threatening extreme weather events becoming increasingly frequent.
  • Weather conditions becoming more suitable for the spread of infectious diseases, e.g. dengue.

And yet, disappointingly, the authors say, ‘Despite these health harms, governments and companies continue prioritising fossil fuels to the detriment of people’s health’. For example:

  • The carbon intensity of the global energy system (the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of energy generated) decreased by less than 1% between 1992 and 2019 (Australia’s decreased by 1.9% over those 27 years).
  • No change in the carbon intensity of the energy system combined with increased energy consumption resulted in global energy-related CO2 emissions reaching a record high in 2021.
  • Many governments, including Australia, continue to subsidise fossil fuels with hundreds of billions of dollars annually.
  • The 15 largest international and national oil and gas companies all have production strategies between now and 2040 that will lead to emissions vastly exceeding levels compatible with limiting warming to 1.5o

More background about the work and details of the relationship between climate change and health can be found in the Countdown Executive Director’s introduction at the launch of the 2022 report (at 24-42 minutes).

Australians get climate change and want action

For the last fifteen years the Climate Institute and then The Australia Institute have produced a report of their annual survey of Australians’ beliefs and attitudes about climate change. The Climate of the Nation report for 2022 demonstrates that the majority of Australians are well-informed about climate change and the risks it poses, want action and know what action they want. For instance:

  • 80% now think climate change is occurring (see graph below for change over last 10 years);
  • 75% are concerned about climate change, with the ‘very concerned’ increasing from 24% to 42% over last 5 years (see bar chart below);
  • Those who refuse to accept the existence of and are unconcerned about climate change are now reduced to a fairly solid rump of about 10% of the population – if some of them didn’t have the ear of government, we could just forget them;
  • 65% want coal-fired power generation gone within the next 20 years;
  • 57% want no more coal, gas or oil projects approved;
  • 92% want Australia’s $11.6 billion/year fossil fuel subsidies to be redirected to, for instance, health care, cost of living expenses, climate action and education; and
  • 67% think Australia should be a world leader on finding solutions to climate change.

 

The one thing Australians continue to get wrong is that they grossly overestimate the size and economic value of Australia’s fossil fuel industries.

US farmers also know the climate is changing

‘It is so much warmer now than it was thirty years ago. In October, you always had a couple of frosts. That doesn’t happen anymore. It’s climate change, there’s no doubt about it’, says citrus farmer Joe Franklin, explaining how he can now cultivate 12,000 trees in Georgia, several hundred miles north of the traditional growing areas for oranges and lemons. And it’s not just citrus that’s moving north; there are now coffee crops in California and (better take a seat before reading on) fine wines from England! The downside for some of Joe’s farming colleagues is that Georgia’s winters are now 2oC warmer than 150 years ago and that’s not good for the state’s peach industry which needs winter chills for the trees to bloom in spring. Not all farmers can simply move their crops towards the poles to cope with higher temperatures – soil type, access to irrigation and the farmer’s skills and experience are also important factors. There are likely to be more losers than winners, agrees affable Joe.

New insights in climate science

‘New evidence on climate risk suggests that multiple climate tipping elements could be triggered if global temperature rises beyond 1.5°C. Current policies point towards a temperature increase of 2.8°C. The complexities of the interactions between climate change and other risks, such as conflicts, pandemics, food crises and underlying development challenges [are] pushing us ever closer to breaking past the socioecological limits within which people and ecosystems must remain to thrive. Rapid mitigation is more urgent than ever. As global temperatures rise, adaptive responses become less effective.’

This is the challenging starting point for a compilation by scientists of ten insights from climate change research that has been published in the last couple of years:

  1. The potential to adapt to climate change is limited. Adaptation is essential but cannot substitute for ambitious mitigation.
  2. Vulnerability hotspots in South America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia are home to 1.6 billion people now and this will double by 2050.
  3. Climate change-related extreme weather events and outbreaks of infectious diseases are already adversely affecting the health of humans, animals and ecosystems.
  4. Slowly increasing temperatures and changing climate patterns and the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events are driving involuntary population migration. But not everyone can move. Anticipatory approaches are needed to minimise displacement and assist migration that becomes unavoidable.
  5. Climate change exacerbates vulnerabilities and insecurity and can lead to violent conflict. Mitigation and adaptation must be complemented by strategies to promote security and peace.
  6. Sustainable agricultural intensification (without expansion into natural areas) can provide climate solutions, food security and ecosystem integrity but land use changes inevitably involve trade-offs that must be managed.
  7. Private finance for sustainability is serving current business models and failing to catalyse the transition away from fossil fuels.
  8. Deep mitigation and effective adaptation are urgently needed to limit the rapidly increasing economic and non-economic losses and damages.
  9. Climate-resilient development requires inclusive decision-making that involves a broad range of empowered stakeholders.
  10. Deep and swift mitigation is being held back by the resource-intensive economy and political and economic vested interests. Injustice and inequality in decisions regarding patterns of production and consumption and processes of decarbonisation must be tackled.

Lessons from Florida’s Hurricane Ian

Emphasising some of the conclusions of the Lancet Countdown and the ‘new insights’, six unexpected climate-related lessons have been distilled from Hurricane Ian that hit Florida in September:

  1. Ian’s combination of very powerful winds, high storm surges, heavy rainfall and slow movement over the land was straight from the playbook of scientists’ predictions about the influence of global warming on the behaviour of storms.
  2. Flood waters can reach communities far from hurricane warning zones and remain after the storm has moved on.
  3. Inadequate planning and preparation due to underestimating the consequences of climate change and delaying advice for residents to evacuate have serious human and financial costs.
  4. Residents and business owners with resources are relocating from known flood zones to safer areas, displacing low income residents and leading to gentrification.
  5. Disasters provide windows of opportunity to educate the public about climate change but also for misinformation to spread like wildfire.
  6. Despite it all, US politicians on opposite sides can work together for the greater good. I think Pollyanna must have been responsible for this one.

Australia’s economic future is minerals, not coal

The figure below is taken from an article by Tim Buckley about the opportunities for Australia to benefit from the great increase in demand for minerals that are essential for the global energy transition. Minerals such as lithium, nickel, copper, cobalt and rare earths, which Australia has considerable reserves of. The figure demonstrates that between now and 2050 not only will the global market value of nickel, lithium and copper increase but also the market value of thermal coal will dramatically decrease, down from approximately US$500 billion in 2020 to less than US$100 billion in 2050. China, of course, is a major player/partner/threat in both areas.

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