The battle against climate change effects have entered a new era as the seven most industrialised countries in the world (G7) – United States, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy, and Canada – met in Germany and affirmed their intention to move toward a global model of development and operations which is free of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. Furthermore, these powerhouses, which represent the highest contributions being made to global warming, made an announcement that attempts will be made to limit global warming to 2 degrees.
This may be interpreted as an endorsement of the United Nations (UN) summit in Paris later this year, where the world is eagerly awaiting the approval by the governments on an agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol. However, there is still so much more work to be done. In the lead up to Paris, the eleven-day UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn drew to a close on June 11th and with it the deliberations concerning this 2 degree target. After the total failure that was Copenhagen 2009, will delegates at the Paris Summit accomplish the the finalisation of a climate agreement that is legally binding for over 190 states? Admittedly, this is a monumental task, but it can be done and it needs to be done.
Keeping our hopes high by assuming the task is achieved, this will represent a significant leap forward for climate action against global warming. However, what prospects are there that states will adhere to an internationally agreed 2 degree target intended to limit global warming to a maximum of 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures? What we need to ask ourselves is whether or not 2 degrees is low enough to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Should we aim lower?
Why go lower?
Those countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change are naturally the most concerned countries.
As the Philippines Climate Change Commissioner, Mary Ann Lucille Sering argued earlier this year, “How can we possibly subscribe to more than double current warming given what less than 1 degree Celsius has entailed?”
UN climate negotiators from the world’s most vulnerable nations have questioned whether 2 degrees is still too dangerous. Unfortunately, their call to focus efforts on limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees were blocked from some of the most powerful nations at the UN climate talks; India, China, and Saudi Arabia.
The Climate Vulnerable Forum has argued that the 2 degree target, reinforced by leaders of the G7 is “inadequate, posing serious threats for fundamental human rights, labor and migration and displacement.” John Knox, who lead the inquiry as the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the Environment argued that “Even moving from one to two degrees of warming negatively affects the full enjoyment of a wide range of human rights.”
Given the human rights implications of setting a dangerous 2 degrees target, we all have valid reasons to be concerned. As citizens of Small Island States in the Caribbean, we need to be particularly aware of the threat climate change poses to our very existence.
I am in full agreement with Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of St. Vincent and the Grenadines as he told theInterPress Service that
“the threat is not abstract, it is not very distant, it is immediate and it is real. And if this matter is the premier existential issue which faces us it means that we have to take it more seriously and put it at the centre stage of all our developmental efforts.”
Indeed, the impacts of climate change on human life are critical. The blow is even stronger for island dwellers such as the inhabitants of Trinidad and Tobago and other Caribbean countries. These include higher sea levels, more intense tropical storms (hurricanes in the Atlantic and typhoons in the Pacific) and more acidic and heated coastal waters.
Regardless of the unfortunate state of denial that many still live in, the Caribbean is facing the reality of climate change and recovery and rehabilitation continues to place pressure on the people affected long after the headlines have been forgotten and replaced by the newest political scandal.
The effects of climate change have not just reached the front doors but they have invaded and in some cases taken away entire houses. Increases in the frequency and strength of tropical storms in the Caribbean have led to flash flooding so intense that cars float and entire houses are reduced to nothing. Moisture-laden winds converging over Trinidad and Tobago have caused torrential rains which wrecked havoc all over the island, destroying crops, livestock, and property. Damage to infrastructure presents a big challenge to the government and with higher temperatures and more forest fires, there have been increases in landslides, representing massive monetary losses.
Our ecosystems are unique and many Caribbean islands depend on them as the primary source of income through tourism. Yet still, our coral reefs and mangroves are facing stress from unsustainable human development and pollution which increases their vulnerability to climate change.
The coasts of our islands are also feeling the effects of climate change. In November 2014, citizens in Trinidad and Tobago woke to the news that an entire area of the eastern coastline had been cut off from the rest of Trinidad due to coastal erosion. According to the chairman of the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) Dr Allan Bachan, this occurred in part as a result of climate change. Construction on the shoreline and climate change are primarily to blame for the loss of metres of coastlines on the Eastern side of the island.
It is clear to see that there are very real and direct impacts of climate change on the coasts, and the lives of those living on the coastline.Coasts are particularly sensitive to rising sea levels, alterations in the frequency and intensity of storms, higher precipitation levels, higher temperature levels in the ocean, and increasing concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. Greater CO2 in the atmosphere then results in greater absorption of the gas by the ocean and more acidity of the ocean. This rising acidity is having significant impacts on coastal and marine ecosystems.
According to data from the U.S. Global Change Research Program, Caribbean islands are likely to witness considerable warming within the next century. It is projected that by 2100, warming will range from approximately 2.5°F to over 6°F, depending on global greenhouse gas emissions throughout the 21st century. Furthermore, we will continue to experience erosion and inundation of our precious coastlines.
Failing to set a target that is low enough now, will worsen these problems.
Let us go low together
This concern turned to protest at in Bonn, as young people gathered at the UN with banners of tropical storms. They then asked negotiators to “add their name here” if they believed that a 2 degree world was safe, noting that they would use their names for the “future disasters of a 2 degree world.”
A group of global Human Rights experts, highlighted what they called the “human rights” implications of a 2 degree rise, calling it “the greatest human rights challenges of our generation”. They argue in line with the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that people who are currently “marginalised are especially vulnerable to climate change”, even at only 2 degrees of warming.
They also pointed the finger of responsibility squarely at “the heads of governments and their climate negotiators” who they say “represent the very last generation that can prevent catastrophic environmental harm to a vast array of human rights”
Reports coming out of the Bonn Climate Talks have shone some light on the current state of UN climate negotiations around the 2 degree target and the importance of supporting developing countries in the face of ongoing impacts of global warming. In fact, the government of Vanuatu has decided to sue the world’s leading fossil fuel companies for the impacts of climate change that they are already facing. Citizens of Denmark sued their government in an attempt to reduce GHG emissions and to encourage climate change action and they won. This is a victory for environmental activists everywhere and one that could set a global trend as the court ordered the government to cut the country’s GHG emissions by at least 25% by 2020.
Negotiators need to not only recognise the importance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees, but also reinvigorate negotiations to better support the inevitable damages that will result.
As Harjeet Singh from ActionAid International points out
“In reality, the impacts of increasing temperature levels will not be linear, but will multiply what we face now several times over. What will happen at 2, 3 or 4 degrees Celsius of warming is unimaginable”.
Whether or not the 1.5 degree target is realistic in the eyes of those countries seeking to exploit their vast fossil fuel resources, the fact remains that emphasis needs to be placed on going lower than 2 degrees. We need to come to a consensus, we need to go lower.
Ease up fossil-huggers. Two degrees just may be too much, we need to take it down a notch.
This article was originally posted on Youth Climate Change Forum