December was a dismal month,
especially in the UK where a climate change-avoidant government has been elected following a campaign carefully crafted to dodge mention of global heating or climate emergency policies (in contrast to all other main parties). More importantly – globally – COP25 in Madrid saw the high fossil fuel-reliant nations refuse to commit to necessary emissions targets, in an expression of a kind of neo-imperialism, sadistically careless of the fate of third-world nations, especially drowning islands and parched subcontinents. Activists concluded that negotiators were more interested in profits from trading emissions than emissions reductions.
Climate scientist Dr Peter Carter, a long-time attender of climate summits and a reviewer for IPCC, explained how COP was set up to fail: at the UN convention that originated the COPs in 1992, it was specified that major decisions would be made by consensus, but consensus was never defined (a two-thirds majority would have had widespread support). This means that a few countries (in practice, USA, Russia, India, China, Brazil, Saudi Arabia) can exercise a veto. Worse still, at COP25 which followed important climate science reports documenting the seriousness of emissions increases, climate science was excluded from the main negotiations agenda. For example, the 2018 IPCC report was blocked; the report that shows that 7% emissions reduction per annum was necessary to hold to 2°C warming (the marker had already moved from the previous – Paris - 1.5°C).
Carter points out how inaccessible the IPCC scenario reports have been, with their technical jargon (Shell was involved at the beginning of this undertaking): RCPs (Representative Concentration Pathways) proliferate but don’t show which of the trajectories the world is on or which scenario is necessary to avert catastrophic climate change. Suppressed from COP was the report that calculated what a combination of the national emissions reduction targets amounted to (woefully inadequate), as was the report that showed the requirement of rapid decreases by 2020 to hold to below 2°. Carter became aware after the first day of COP that a decision had been made not to try and achieve any agreement on mitigation. He is clear what all this means: in ordinary language, the planet is on trend to biosphere collapse. He wants the world to call it what it is: a terrible, unprecedented crime. Evil.
Meanwhile, according to Carter, in a specific location in the Arctic (Barrow, Alaska), massive emission of methane (which releases 86 times more greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide) has gone almost unreported. From a base line of 800ppb, it has risen to 2,050ppb, remaining at this level now for four months – and in winter time. The Arctic is emitting all 3 greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Suggestion of a tipping point?
One further observation adds the final, ironic, touch to a portrayal of COP’s avoidances, disavowal and denial: COP was moved to Madrid from Santiago, Chile, late in the day because of serious civil unrest in Santiago (and Chile more generally). The link to climate change was not raised. Yet Chile has been declared as suffering from mega-drought (notably around Santiago), the kind of drought from which it cannot emerge for 50 years, even allowing for successful mitigation policies at world level (the same label applies to the bottom third of Sub-Saharan Africa and soon to Australia).
I hesitated with this disturbing treatment of the news, perhaps still with one foot in a ‘normal’ family Christmas, yet it is appropriate news with which to usher in 2020: a hard, cold blast of reality, not just about the climate but about the grip in which fossil fuel capitalism holds world leaders and their decision-making structures. As I went back to news that I thought I’d taken in a few weeks ago, I realised it was not digested and wondered how undigested it would have remained, had I not chosen to write this piece, and how this traumatic knowledge would - and will - sit within me. On one side, hope takes another knock; on the other, outrage mobilises me to start again, after a brief period of parking climate concerns: an indeterminate, ongoing, balancing act. It did not surprise me that COP went that way; I already ‘knew’ about the hold of fossil fuel interests and the latest version of business as usual. Confirmation of such unthought knowledge, however dismal, is something of a relief: the therapeutic value of bringing an existential threat into thinkability. It is part of CPA’s values that we try to digest and reflect, reflect and digest, especially with the responsibility of presenting bad news to others, others who also already know about the pernicious hold of business as usual. Hopefully (radical hope, not unrealistic hope) the trauma can be better contained this way. Able to face this reality, what does it mean for COP26 in Glasgow? Can we use this information to help call out the criminal nations (without projecting into enemy others)? A concerted attempt at nation-shaming?
Next month’s Digest will explore the wider question of climate science’s blinkers and how it relates to the radical environmentalist perspective based on the idea of Living Earth.