Environment: Guterres: ‘the ecosystem meltdown is cold, hard scientific fact’

Jan 22, 2023
António Guterres

Tell it like it is, António: ‘climate disaster, death sentence, insanity, inconsistent with human survival’. Thank goodness for chocolate and birds.

Was any progress made at the last COP meeting in Egypt?

Were there game-changing, climate-action breakthroughs or was it simply more talk culminating in yet another failure (Greta Thunberg’s ‘Blah, blah, blah’)?

Tom Athanasiou, a well-respected international climate activist who was at Sharm El Sheik and able to hear the discussions and feel the mood, not just read the highly manicured official statements, has written one of the more thoughtful and informed analyses. He argues that some things really did change at last November’s conference:

  • Equity and national ‘fair shares’ were given centre stage in the fossil fuel reduction discussions, even if it was in the teeth of fierce opposition by fossil lobbyists and wealthy countries;
  • Over 80 nations, led by India and including the USA, called for a ‘phase-down’ (not ‘phase-out’ yet) of all fossil fuels (not just coal);
  • There was widespread acceptance that successfully limiting global warming to a reasonably safe level will be achieved only if it is done fairly and this depends on facing the crucial question of ‘who pays?’;
  • Governments recognised that they can no longer expect the private sector to provide the bulk of the finance for mitigation, adaptation, loss and damage and a just transition.

Regarding ceilings for global warming, whether 1.5 is dead or alive is not the point for Athanasiou. He argues that 1.5 never had any credibility as an absolute ‘scientific’ limit (like, for instance, water boiling at 100oC). Yes, it would be good to keep warming under 1.5 but its real importance is as an instrument to provoke ambition and rapid action to stabilise the climate system and make the necessary social and political transformations. This purpose is not lost even if staying under 1.5 seems increasingly unlikely.

Staying positive, Stephen Singer provides a quick run-down on all the reasons why 1.5 is still achievable and affordable and the only things standing in the way are governments and vested corporate interests (oh, is that all? that’s OK then).

And by the way, Athanasiou’s opening paragraph is worth reading if nothing else. It might strike a chord with you as it did with me. Ouch!

Oil company chief to head next COP in UAE

This year’s climate COP meeting will be held in the United Arab Emirates, a country with a poor human rights record and not even a semblance of democracy.

Even so, the announcement of His Excellency Dr Sultan Al Jaber as the COP President has been met with consternation. Al Jaber is CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) and he likes to spruik the UAE government’s, his personal and ADNOC’s commitment to renewable energy. However, this is just greenwashing for ADNOC which is one of the world’s largest oil companies and one with big expansion plans for both oil and gas over the next few years. According to his own bio, Al Jaber is driving ADNOC’s strategy towards a ‘more profitable upstream, more valuable downstream and more sustainable and economic gas supply’.

Some nice comparisons are being made about Al Jaber’s appointment:

‘You wouldn’t invite arms dealers to lead peace talks. So why let oil executives lead climate talks?’

‘This is tantamount to putting the head of a tobacco company in charge of negotiating an anti-smoking treaty.’

Mind you, the Sultan has soul mates in Australia. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the CEO of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association believes that ‘developing carbon capture and storage and green hydrogen would be expensive and take years to deploy (at least these statements are true), so gas producers would need ongoing access to high-quality local and international carbon credits to meet their commitments to reduce their greenhouse gases by 30 per cent by 2030’.

How about working harder to reduce emissions? Reduce production? Reduce exploration? No, we’re gonna keep pumping it as long as we can. Le charbon est mort. Vive le gaz.

‘The Limits to Growth’ fifty years on

January 4th’s P&I carried an article in which Roger Beale disputed claims that ‘a steady state economy, static or declining population and degrowth are the real answers’ to successfully tackling the multiple environmental challenges facing humanity and the Earth. Such proposals, says RB, are ‘a distraction unhelpful to the environmental cause’. Rather, ‘the challenge is to inspire and sustain ingenious strategies to decouple economic growth from environmental harm’. In other words, the continued development of capitalism and technology holds the key to long term human prosperity in a sustainable environment.

Central to RB’s argument is a claim that the projections of the Club of Rome’s 1972 report ‘The Limits to Growth’ were ‘rapidly proven wrong [because] they failed to recognise the adaptability of human systems and the impact of technology on the productivity of natural ones’. In my view, (1) RB has cherry-picked developments over the last fifty years to support this assertion, and (2) fifty years is far too short a time anyway to evaluate the report’s projections.

Looking at the evidence as a whole, I think it’s extremely difficult to avoid the conclusion that humanity, particularly the wealthy part, has created serious and worsening crises in multiple dimensions of the natural environment. There is little if any evidence to indicate that we will successfully tackle these problems in the time available to avoid catastrophes, possibly even the elimination of the human race.

For an alternative assessment of the significance and prescience of ‘The Limits to Growth’, I strongly recommend an editorial in the October 2022 edition of Monthly Review. The editorial highlights two of the wider messages contained within Limits to Growth: (1) the critique it made of ‘technological optimism, which served as a major ideological barrier to conceiving the seriousness of the problem and taking the needed social, economic, and environmental actions’, and (2) the narrowness of the prevalent conception of ‘growth as growth in capital accumulation, GDP, resource use and population in 1970s society as opposed to growth of sustainable human development and of human-enhanced sustainable growth in nature’.

For anyone interested in pursuing this very important debate, the August 2022 edition of Monthly Review included a fifty year anniversary interview with Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of ‘The Limits to Growth’ and P&I recently published several responses to Beale’s comments, including one by Mark Diesendorf.

Guterres tells the truth in Davos

At the World Economic Forum this week, the UN Secretary-General identified the perfect storm that is plaguing the world on a number of fronts: global economic recession, deepening inequalities, inflation, cost of living crises, supply chain disruptions, energy crunch, Covid-19, failure to prepare for future pandemics …

‘Add to all that another major and, indeed, existential challenge. We are flirting with climate disaster. Every week brings a new climate horror story. Greenhouse gas emissions are at record levels and growing. The commitment to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees is nearly going up in smoke. Without further action, we are headed to a 2.8-degree increase. 

The consequences, as we all know, would be devastating. Several parts of our planet would be uninhabitable. And for many, it would mean a death sentence.

But this is not a surprise. The science has been clear for decades. And I am not talking only about UN scientists. I am talking even about fossil fuel scientists. We learned last week that certain fossil fuel producers were fully aware in the 1970s that their core product was baking our planet*. And just like the tobacco industry, they rode rough-shod over their own science.

Some in Big Oil peddled the big lie. And like the tobacco industry, those responsible must be held to account. Today, fossil fuel producers and their enablers are still racing to expand production, knowing full well that this business model is inconsistent with human survival. 

Now, this insanity belongs in science-fiction, yet we know the ecosystem meltdown is cold, hard scientific fact.’

*Guterres is referring to a research paper in Science clearly demonstrating that Exxon’s scientists have since the 1970s clearly understood climate science and very accurately predicted the effects on global warming but that the company chose to publicly deny, denigrate and obfuscate rather than admit the truth and take action.

Chocolate: a guilty pleasure in more ways than one

Chocolate would have featured in many readers’ Christmas celebrations and Easter products will soon be in the shops. So how good for people and planet are the various traders and producers? Needless to say, there is wide inter-company variation in an index of six criteria of responsible behaviour: the traceability and transparency of the raw products, payment of a living income, use of child labour, deforestation and climate, agroforestry, and agrichemical management.

The screenshot below is one section of the index. The full list is very much oriented to North America but also contains several companies and products that I see in Australia. The colour coding progresses from green ‘good’ through yellow and orange to ‘bad’ red. What is perhaps most interesting is that the companies that perform well on the environmental dimensions also perform well on the human ones (two companies score green on all six criteria) and at the bottom of the list there are four companies that score all red.

Tasmania’s birdlife

During the break we spent a fortnight in rural Tasmania. The weather wasn’t great but it was still lovely and I had lots of opportunity for walking and birdwatching. I managed to see 52 species of Australian natives, including five of Tasmania’s twelve endemic species. Unfortunately, five imports from the UK were also common. Two moments glow in my memory: the iridescent plumage of a Shining bronze-cuckoo displayed in all its glory in the afternoon sun and a great view of a family of Tawny frogmouths just a few feet off the ground (sorry, not prize-winning photo quality, I know).

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