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opinion and analysis CLIMATE CHANGE

The knife-edge path our world is on could lead to disaster in just 11 years

The story is not the same this time around. Let’s just say: this is serious.

Saturday 20 October, 2018
International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) announced the need for urgent and unprecedented measures in order to keep global warming at 1.5°C.
International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) announced the need for urgent and unprecedented measures in order to keep global warming at 1.5°C. Foto:JOAQUIN TEMES

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This might not be the best time to celebrate William Blake’s heroic poem, the one that became the hymn Jerusalem when it was put to music in 1916. Those triumphant lines about “England’s green and pleasant land,” written in 1804-08, has now been put into second place. England was, for the most of this last summer, a dry and brown land. The rain came at the end of Autumn in England, just as it had always done. But this year it was not enough.

My second arrival in London, back in September 1976, was also at the end of a dry Summer (it was the beginning of Spring in Buenos Aires when my family and I left in great haste). People then, over 40 years ago, were talking about the “terrible” lack of rain, “never before,” etc and the likes. They were concerned about installing pipes to run the bath-water off into the garden, the soapy water from the kitchen dishes, and whether or not the Labour government should declare a national emergency. But England moved into October and the story was over.

The story is not the same this time around. Let’s just say: this is serious. Two weeks ago, on a Monday, the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) announced the need for urgent and unprecedented measures in order to keep global warming at 1.5°C. Half a degree more could significantly “worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people,” the IPCC’s report concluded.

If anybody should look for help just now it probably won’t be forthcoming. US President Donald Trump rejected the Paris climate agreement. Britain’s Conservative Party Prime Minister Theresa May was more concerned about the lack of a Brexit agreement with the European Union (before March 29) than the week’s raindrops. Russia too was angered, in the old Soviet style of things. The secret paths of wayward spies of old have been blown wide open. Their passports had been issued from a back shop in Moscow by bureaucrats who registered false names but kept to central passport office numeration. That flaw was discovered by a non-professional network investigator, Eliot Higgins, identified as “Bellingcat,” who traced numbers, faces and careers to a variety of Russian spies. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia won no friends in the world by denying that it had chopped into pieces a human rights activist trapped in the Riyadh Consulate in Turkey. And Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro election front-runner thought it best to distract the world by threatening to transform the great rainforest into a kitchen garden, so as to export more beans to whoever might buy them.

It was not a great week for such slow developing issues as climate change. In fact, the week and the climate were, as usual, packed with distant thunder but poor prospects of real improvement. Commentary on the radio in London warned that there were a number of big cities advancing toward 5°C temperature rises in the near future, instead of looking forward to cutbacks in usage.

In England it was announced that fracking exploration and production were to begin again for the first time in seven years. The suspension in fracking for gas, pending investigation of reports that some coastal cities had noticed small tremors, prompted a government enquiry. The company coming back into production argued that the effect of exploring for gas by use of water under very high pressure would only mark 0.5 on the Richter scale in the United Kingdom, while the US had been witnessing impacts of three and four points on the Richter scale. The supporting arguments for a return to fracking for gas was that it would gain Britain thousands of new jobs and masses of fresh income, which had not even been calculated as yet.

In another part of London, the Bloomsbury imprint launched a new book, Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience and the Fight for a Sustainable Future, by the staunch human rights activist, Mary Robinson. In an interview with The Guardian newspaper last weekend, Robinson – a former president of Ireland, ex-UN High Commissioner for human rights and more recently the UN secretary-general’s special envoy on climate change – argued that there was still good reason for optimism over efforts to stop the world’s otherwise apparent headlong race to selfdestruction. Robinson seemed quite upbeat in her interview, although she keeps smiles for special occasions. She is now based in her own office at Trinity College Dublin, where she has installed her Climate Justice Foundation.

“Governments are not responding at all adequately to the stark reality that the IPCC is pointing to: that we have about 11 years to make really significant change,” Robinson said. “The report of the IPCC is extraordinarily important because it is telling us that two degrees is not safe. It is beyond safe. Therefore, we have to work much, much harder to stay at l.5 degrees. I have seen what one degree of change is doing in more vulnerable countries… villages are having to move, there’s slippage, there’s sea water incursion.”

Robinson’s opinion is that “we are in a bad political cycle”, particularly because the United States is not only not offering leadership but is being disruptive of multilateralism, encouraging populism in other countries.

Climate change may be man-made, Robinson says in her interview with Rory Carroll, but she believes women are key to the solution, through planting trees, recycling waste, eating less meat and many more measures. “There’s a nurturing quality in women, a concern for children, that’s very deep. And women change behaviour.“ It is women who often decide what the diet will be. And in vulnerable countries, it is often women who bear the brunt of climate change.

Robinson, born in Ballina, County Mayo, 73 years ago, is famous for her friendly smile and contrasting firmness in dealing with issues that she takes on. It is this aspect, the ability to be very firm in pursuing important public issues, that she now wants to act on herself. She claims to have decided that one small way to get ahead is by changing her own behaviour: for example doing more consulting and holding more conferences by Internet and catching fewer flights to meetings in which consultation can just as easily be developed by phone or by Skype.

Her personal rule seems to state that to achieve human rights a constant struggle is involved: “It is not a case of always going forward there are setbacks that force us to take second looks at issues, and then work harder.”

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