BONN–The opening of the United Nation’s annual mid-year climate conference in Bonn Germany offered up dramatically contrasting messages this week: national leaders and political negotiators congratulated themselves, proudly celebrating the “historic Paris Agreement,” while environmentalists warned somberly that the Earth is far worse off than most people realize, with the political will for climate action still falling far behind the fearfully rapid pace of warming.
The conference opening coincided with a NASA announcement this week of seven straight months of record-shattering global heat. The first four months of 2016 averaged +1.43 Celsius (2.57 Fahrenheit) above 1880s preindustrial baselines — that’s uncomfortably close to the +1.5 Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) limit established by scientists as a dangerous global average temperature threshold, and also the limit suggested by the Paris Agreement.
“Today marks a new era for all of us,” declared Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in the opening session attended by scores of nations. “Together you all worked hard [in Paris] to construct a collective vision of transformation based on fairness and transparency, profoundly inspired by new prospects for growth. Now you must work together to make that reality as compelling and transformative as your shared vision.”
Nearby, in a far smaller room, with a few dozen people attending, Teresa Anderson of London-based ActionAid, sat on a panel of four and cited the NASA data:
“It was announced today that last month was the hottest April ever, seven months in a row of months breaking temperature records. We need much greater ambition, far greater action. As thousands die trying to cross borders and we see politicians call for building walls, we get a glimpse of a future none of us want to see.
“Paris agreed to a 1.5-degree Celsius target — necessary for food security,” Anderson added. “In fact, this number may prove to be the planet’s lifeline. But only if we choose to pick up that lifeline, grab it with both hands, and follow it to its necessary conclusion. Sadly, the Paris Agreement still lacks the rules and the tools to reach this goal.”
And so, the declarations bounced to and fro, through the week, ranging between glowing optimism and gloom. The conference, which opened May 16, runs through May 26. Policies and complex particulars of the Paris Agreement, like financing for REDD+ (dealing with deforestation), and the Clean Development Mechanism (dealing with emissions reductions projects in the developing world), are all being debated in Bonn, though no real decisions will be made. Those must wait until November 7-18 and COP22 in Marrakesh, Morocco.
“The damage that’s being done”
The soaring optimism voiced in the main hall echoed through the opening day: “Dear friends, leaving the phase of negotiations behind, this is a new era of collaboration!” exalted Figueres, who is shortly to retire from her UN climate post. “The whole world is united in its commitment to the global goals embodied in the Paris Agreement, as well as to the means by which to achieve them.”
Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists, expressed a darker view. Sitting beside Anderson in the small meeting room panel discussion, he warned: “We need more urgency to make things move along more quickly. We need greater action on mitigation and far more funds for loss and damage. We’re at 1-degree Celsius [1.8 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial temperature averages] now, and look at all the damage that’s being done.”
As the conference unfolded, the gigantic wildfire in Fort McMurray, Canada continued burning. In India, 330 million people are suffering water stress due to what is probably the worst drought that country has ever experienced. In Africa 36 million people are on the verge of famine, again due to El Niño and climate change-escalated drought, while in Australia 93 percent of the Great Barrier Reef has suffered heat-related coral bleaching. Climate change pressures are on the march around the globe, with massive crop failures, hunger, civil unrest, swelling numbers of climate refugees, and failed nation states a looming possibility as global warming accelerates faster than scientific projections.
Among the major victories hailed in the Paris Agreement was a concession made by developed countries that their less ambitious 2 degree Celsius (3.6-degree Fahrenheit) temperature increase target by 2100 over preindustrial levels would condemn the world’s most vulnerable nations — think low lying Bangladesh and the Marshall Islands — to near certain doom. Instead, under great pressure, the target was lowered to holding global temperatures to a 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) increase.
The problem, many climate scientists argue, is that even if we miraculously stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, we’d warm another third of a degree in the coming decades regardless. Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius — the Paris goal — is a near impossibility, the experts say.
With 196 nations voluntarily agreeing to modest decreases in their carbon footprint — including the big three of China, the U.S. and India — the pledged Paris carbon reductions set us on a path to topping a 3 degree Celsius (5.4 Fahrenheit) increase by 2100. That much warming could prove intolerable in the warmest, poorest parts of the world, posing an enormous threat to agriculture and biodiversity — even making parts of the planet, including North Africa and the Middle East uninhabitable.
Bluntly put: there is no viable plan as yet to close the temperature gap. But there is much talk.
“Immediately after the UK signed the Paris Agreement, officials returned home and approved $3.3 billion in dirty energy subsidies for oil and gas companies,” said Asad Rehman with Friends of the Earth-UK. “Those subsidies should have been canceled given the Paris Agreement. We see a huge disconnect between what is being said here [in Bonn] and what is happening here and at home.”
Such impatience has been running high all week in Bonn, where activists complain about the slow pace of change. In one meeting, I felt compelled to play devil’s advocate and asked the following question: “Global leaders in Paris acknowledged in December that the agreement did not go far enough; they stressed that it was a necessary starting point. And they all pledged to revise and strengthen the document in the months and years ahead. Don’t they deserve more time?”
“Our people are already dying,” retorted Lidy Nacil with the Asia Peoples Movement on Debt & Development. “Fossil fuel projects should have been canceled right after Paris.”
‘Be builders and facilitators’
In her opening remarks, Ségolène Royal of France, the newly named president of COP21, said Paris had demonstrated that the international community is capable of unifying to respond to the global challenge of climate change, and to embark on the path of sustainable development.
“Since the conclusion of the Paris Agreement,” she said, “our priority is to build on the ambitious, balanced and fair compromises which were reached last December, in order to reinforce action on the ground. The foundations have been laid, it is now up to us to build our common house. I call on you to be builders and facilitators.”
Hope is good. Reality is chilling. Many billions of dollars in global government subsidies continue flowing to the fossil fuel industry so it can drill for natural gas and oil — even as the Paris Agreement calls for a carbon-free economy. Meanwhile incentives for renewables (solar, wind and nuclear) are tiny in comparison, even as technology for all three gets cheaper, more efficient and is desperately needed to dramatically reduce carbon emissions.
The amount of money needed to help developing countries adapt to the ongoing and escalating ravages of drought, mega-storms, sea level rise, dying coral reefs, and an ever-growing list of dire climate change challenges reaches into the trillions of dollars. Yet only a few billion have been pledged by developed countries.
A raft of challenging money-raising ideas is being discussed in Bonn such as suing the oil, gas and coal companies; applying new taxes on air travel and ocean shipping; or creating insurance bonds for climate catastrophes. All will face brutal opposition.
And still, no one can say where the money will come from to build sea walls to save New York City, no less Bangladesh. Nor where the money will come from to supplant the fading water supplies once provided by now vanishing glaciers and declining rivers and aquifers. Or how we will manage as a global community to negotiate and implement the relocation of millions of climate change refugees whose homelands are rendered uninhabitable.
But Figueres never wavered in her hope: “I am confident that this group [of international negotiators], which has already accomplished so much over so long, can continue to work together to turn the vision laid out in the Paris Agreement into the new reality. I am confident that you can continue to be inclusive of all countries and all stakeholders, leaving no one behind. And I am confident that the spirit of cooperation that we saw succeed last December can carry us forward to Marrakesh and beyond.”
Embodying the contradictory yay-naysayer spirit of Bonn, Teresa Anderson of ActionAid wished she could believe in the long-term political will expressed by Figueres, but she isn’t confident: “Asking for a [1.5 degree Celsius temperature increase as agreed to in Paris], while not saying anything about how to get there does not make much sense. Science must go beyond political realities which are rapidly coming up against planetary realities.”