Let's Think

Coal might go, climate change will stay

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The high season for climate change activists has started again with some reading signals of the end of the age of fossil fuels and a “vision of a 100% renewable energy future”.

That is how Martin Kaiser, head of international “climate politics” at Greenpeace interpreted a decision of the conference of the Group of Seven (G7) industrial powers, just held in Bavaria, Germany. The G7 reaffirmed their pledge to mobilise $100bn a year to help poorer nations tackle climate change and agreed: “... the world should phase out fossil fuel emissions this century, in a move hailed as a historic decision in the fight against climate change.”

The conference of the leaders of the seven industrial giants was but one of a number of international platforms used in recent weeks for a build-up to the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP15) to be held in early December this year in France. There was also a preparatory meeting of “climate change negotiators” in Bonn, Germany, and “World Wide Views on Climate and Energy”, a global internet-driven survey, co-initiated by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat and a number of international foundations.

In the words of Christian Leyrit, president of the National Commission of Public Debate (CNDP), which co-organised the latter event, it was intended to “democratise” efforts around the fight against climate change.

“Only the mobilisation of citizens on a global scale will allow for successful negotiations in Paris,” he said.

Illustrating how big “climate politics” has become, this survey – combined with events across the globe, including in South Africa – saw some 10 000-odd people from 83 countries completing a multiple-choice questionnaire. And, at December’s COP21 in Paris, some 40 000 delegates from around the world are expected to pitch up for the peak event of the season.

Aspirations for COP

Speaking at the Bonn meeting of climate change negotiators, United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, summarised the aspirations for COP21:

“Paris must send the signals that will enable us to make a transition to low-carbon, resilient economies that provide prosperity while protecting the planet.”

Central to this aspiration is to find ways to wean economies across the world off fossil fuels, and especially coal, as primary energy source and replace them with renewable sources.

The global ‘deal’ to achieve this vision in an effort to reduce the emission of CO2 to something approaching pre-Industrial Revolution levels – driven by the assumption that it will retard global warming and counter climate change – has been around since 2009. Implementation, however, has not lived up to expectations.

One of the core problems is the cost of such a transition for developing countries. Financing to assist them from rich industrialised nations, which have had the advantage of development on the back of relatively cheap fossil fuel, has been slow in materialising.

And even if the $100bn pledge by the G7 does materialise, it will only represent 0.013% of the global GDP as measured in 2013 and, according to Tim Gore, policy lead of Oxfam, will cover only 2% of what is needed by poor countries to adapt to a changing climate.

Disputed science

The science on which the assumptions about the contribution of CO2 human-driven emissions to global warming and the effects of such warming are based, is not undisputed.

And it is not only those tarred with the term “climate change deniers” who are disputing the absolutist claims of climate change activists. Reputable scientific studies now found that some parts of the globe are actually benefiting from global warming, and probably of the man-made variety.

A team of scientists studying the African climate has revealed that global warming has triggered the return of crucial seasonal rains to the Sahel in recent years. It was found that greenhouse gases have boosted rainfall in this part of Africa.

In what amounts to a massive positive effect of global warming for that region, it brought an easing of the droughts that had killed 100 000 people in the 1970s and 1980s. The scientists found that heat-trapping emissions accounted for three-quarters of the recovery in rainfall, rather than other suggested factors such as changes in sea temperatures or acid rain pollution.

Against this background, and considering the financing deficit to replace it, it might be a bit premature to declare “the end of coal”. Coal as an energy source for man has been around since the days of the cave man. It is still the most plentiful source on the planet and on its back new technologies have developed, especially since the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century.

Change of tack needed

The phenomenon of climate change, however, outdates even man’s use of coal as a source of energy.

About 70 000 years ago, a super volcanic eruption in Indonesia released more than 2 000 cubic kilometres of material, blocking out sunlight. Global mean temperature plummeted by about four degrees. The resultant rapid climate change might have left only 10 000 human survivors.

In turn, evidence of warming periods of climate change is to be found in South Africa’s own Karoo region. Approximately 250 million years ago this area was a vast inland sea which, under gradually warming climate conditions, evaporated. Initially it left behind a swamp where reptiles and amphibians became the main inhabitants. 

It is also argued by some that the story of Noah in the Bible is the story of cataclysmic climate change, carrying a warning to those who do not heed the warning signs.

Against this history of our planet it probably represents human arrogance to talk about “stopping” climate change and “climate politics” and treat it as something out of which we can “negotiate” our way.

While we should keep up efforts to understand climate change better and improve predictive capacity, the time has come to shift the focus from prevention to preparing for and adapting to climate change.

We already know that climate change is happening; that it is likely to cause the relocation of people from existing urban areas because of flooding; that changes in food production because of shifting growth seasons will take place; that rainfall patterns will change; and more.

It may be time for humanity to take a leaf out of the book of nature, which is already showing signs of adapting to climate change. Not only is the Sahel greening again, in Europe trees are showing signs of adapting to absorb more carbon and the vegetation of the continent’s mountain ranges is changing from more cold-adapted species to more warm-adapted species.

As professor Gary Gutting of the University of Notre Dame, and editors of its Philosophical Reviews, warn in a recent article, adapting to climate change is going to be a lot messier than we think. But avoiding it is not an available option and the sooner we get our heads around that, the better.

by Piet Coetzer

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