June gave the world a taste of things to come as climate change-fuelled killer heatwaves and chaos continued to envelope many countries, with fires and floods devastating the lives and livelihoods of many people across the world.
Firefighters struggled to cope with widespread wildfires in central Portugal
In Portugal, unprecedented wildfires killed 62 people as they attempted to flee to safety. A deadly convergence of factors led to the tragedy. Temperatures hit a freakish 40°C and as firefighters rushed to tackle over 50 fires they did not have the capacity to deal with all the fires. Strong winds let the fires spread quickly through large eucalyptus plantations, which have also altered the water tables meaning that many towns did not have water to fight the fires. Many of those that did lost electricity and were unable to pump water from the wells.
The aftermath of avoidable tragedy. Photo: Guillermo Martinez/Reuters
Worryingly, wildfires and climate change are actually locked in a vicious cycle: as temperatures increase and wildfires become more prevalent and more intense, more trees are lost, meaning forests edge closer to become sources of carbon rather than sinks. After an intense fire, forests are less able to reseed themselves, meaning there are fewer trees to store carbon.
Large swathes of India have been scorched in an extreme heat wave, with temperatures soaring to 48°C in and Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, where 10 people died. Temperatures in several other states were not far off, with Bihar experiencing 46.1°C and Odisha 44.7°C, leaving 16 dead.
Temperatures in Iran break 50C.
June temperatures also hit mind-boggling levels in Iraq and Iran, with the Iraqi government calling a 4 day holiday as Baghdad reached 52°C while apparent temperatures in Iran were in the 70s. Celsius.
A record breaking summer heatwave is also sweeping the U.S. with temperatures in Phoenix high enough that dozens of flights had to be cancelled. The hot, dry conditions that climate change is creating in the Southwest (“Dust-Bowlification”) are perfect for the rapid spread of diseases such as Valley Fever, which has increased 800% from 2011.
If this month you did not experience a killer heatwave, you more than likely soon will, as by 2100 up to 75% of humanity will experience dangerous summer temperatures. While some people will be able to escape the heat, many will not. The class and race fault-lines of the climate crisis will become ever starker: for example, India is warming faster than other parts of the world but 25% of its population do not have access to electricity and so are more vulnerable to soaring temperatures. Agriculture in the developing world already bears 25% of all damages arising from disasters.
While in the grip of a heatwave or drought, such as South Korea’s current “worst drought in 30 years,” rain would be seen as a welcome relief, in fact storm deluges after prolonged drought do nothing to restore water reserves and merely cause more havoc. This is exactly what happened in South Africa this month as a combination of wildfires and the worst storm in living memory killed 9 people and displaced 10,000.
A man runs from an angry sea in Cape Town. Photo: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
Even when they don’t strike during a drought, the superstorms of the Anthropocene are still deadly. This month Tropical Storms Beatriz triggered landslides that left at least 5 citizens and 6 soldiers dead in Mexico while mudslides in Guatemala also killed 11 people. Across the world in Bangladesh, Cyclone Mora damaged thousands of homes and displaced hundreds of thousands. 134 people died in landslides across the country; the death toll continues to rise. As with other “natural disasters” such as wildfire, the frequency and severity of landslides will increase with climate change.
Heavy rains also savaged China, killing 6, and parts of India, where entire houses were submerged in their hundreds and 8 people lost their lives. At least 4000 have been displaced. Their numbers add to the already-record breaking 65.6 million people who are currently displaced — around a third outside of their country.
A man carries an elderly woman from her home in Assam. Up to 13,000 people are thought to have been affected.
As well as people, many animals are fleeing the impacts of a warming world. This month marine experts warned of a climate emergency as fish flee tropical waters for in an aquatic exodus to more temperate conditions. They are followed closely by deadly warm water pathogens such as Vibrio vulnificus, some of which can now be found within the Arctic circle. It’s not only water-borne diseases we must worry about: the ticks that carry Lyme disease are now present as far north as Sweden and are increasingly able to survive winter. Microbiologist Stanley Maloy puts it best:
“So often so many of the things we talk about with climate change are ‘this is going to be a problem in 2030 or 2050 or 2100,’ and it sounds so far away. But we’re talking about things where our one-degree centigrade change in temperature is already enough to affect infections.”
The impacts of our past mistakes are already upon us. Though we do not need a science degree to see those impacts, it’s instructive that the latest studies show us that we have a mere 3 years before we guarantee warming the likes of which we cannot endure. CO2 levels are already at an all-time monthly high, which is a worrying sign for a number of reasons. While some hold on to a belief in technology and markets, i.e. neoliberal fundamentalism, the fact is that without international regulation and cooperation we are quite literally cooked. For example, the “logic” (read: ideologically-based decisions) of the market would see a glut of gas infrastructure go into place around the world, yet a new study shows gas has no place in meeting the 1.5 °C Paris temperature goal.
Far and away the biggest event in climate change geopolitics in the past month was the predictable announcement by Donald Trump that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris Agreement.
It’s Donald Trump Vs. The World
The news was greeted with a variety of responses from almost every imaginable quarter. Climate justice movements around the world vowed to continue their struggles to hold all governments to account over climate change and to do everything they can to secure a just transition away from the inequitable carbon economy, while even liberal comedian John Oliver felt the need to dedicate an entire segment of his show to critiquing the decision.
The many barefaced lies in Trump’s justification were pointed out, often in great detail, and the well-documented history of the U.S. as the primary blocker of progress on climate change was highlighted. One of the principal justifications used by Trump was that the Paris Agreement was unfairly stacked against the U.S., particularly in regards to the economy. Nothing could be further from the truth: the Paris Agreement does not actually require the U.S. to reduce its emissions or specify how much (if any) financial support it should give to developing countries. Nor does it require the closure of coal plants — that will continue to happen irrespective of anything — and it does not give China any economic advantage over the U.S. If anything, the opposite could be said.
The black line indicated the countries’ climate pledges while the green bars represent the fair amount of emissions reductions they would have to undertake to limit warming to 1.5°C. The U.S. had pledged to do about 20% of its fair share while China has pledged to do more than its share. Source: CSO Equity Review of NDCs.
In fact, due to the absolute insistence of the U.S. the Paris Agreement explicitly “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation” for the major polluters, of which the U.S. is the largest of all time. (Yet as Part 4 of this month’s World at 1°C will explore, that might not rule out domestic litigation against the climate criminals in government.)
While dressing up his approach to the environment with a veneer of narrow self-interest that might appeal to his base, Trump is actually undermining even his own country’s ability to adapt to the worsening climate change which he is hell bent on guaranteeing. Beyond this, he may possibly be tempted by the wildly dangerous and largely pointless lure of geoengineering.
For many, the U.S. withdrawal signaled a new era in the global politics of climate change, with China, Europe, and non-State actors such as technology moguls or billionaire mayors poised to become the so-called champions. Following the announcement, Michael Bloomberg stepped in with a $15 million offer to fill the gap left by the U.S. for funding UN climate change meetings and several states launched a “climate alliance” with Hawaii becoming the first to pass a bill requiring emissions reductions supposedly in line with the temperature target of the Paris Agreement.
While such moves are welcome in principle, framing the likes of Bloomberg and Elon Musk as heroes is misleading and insulting. Bloomberg’s $15 million is no replacement for the $3 billion pledged by the U.S., nor for the hundreds of billions they should be contributing under any measure of fairness. Notably, his donation went to the UN secretariat as opposed to community-based adaptation projects in poor countries, which would not secure him any political leverage. Similarly, while Elon Musk did resign in protest at the decision, he had no qualms working with Trump’s administration even as they enacted the Muslim ban and repealed healthcare for millions of people.
Macron tried to out-troll the Troll-in-Chief
Following the announcement, France’s new President Emmanuel Macron began trolling Trump with this invite to climate scientists to relocate to Paris. He went on to somewhat undermine himself by inviting Trump himself to Paris for Bastille day, proving that liberals and neoliberals are unable or unwilling to directly confront fascism or its handmaidens, who have not finished with their pursuit of ecosystem collapse.
Meanwhile, the British government, humiliated by the results of an ego-driven snap general election, cut a deal with the extremely reactionary DUP of Northern Ireland, whose regressive beliefs include climate change denial and a near fanatical lust for fracking. Elsewhere in Europe, the Polish government’s appetite for destroying the UNESCO heritage Białowieża Forest continues unabated as part of their larger plan to log the entire country.
The Polish government is arguing that to save the forest it must destroy the forest. Poland will host critical UN Climate Change negotiations in 2018. Photo: Kacper Pempel/Reuters
Not to be outdone by the bad governments of America and Europe, the Australian Government has approved a huge gas pipeline in the Northern territory (paving the way for a fracking assault of aboriginal lands) and followed up by passing a bill to “fix” current title laws to make it easier for mining companies to reach agreements with first nations Traditional Owners groups. The bill has been nicknamed the “Adani Bill” after the Adani Carmichael mega coal mine which is being fought tooth and nail by many in Australia.
They have also taken a note from Trump’s playbook by sending the Environment Minister out to press to make the ridiculous justification for the Adani mine that Australian coal being exported to India is “better for the Great Barrier Reef” than leaving it in the ground while other countries sell coal to India.
The Adani mine is fiercely opposed by Australian civil society. Photo: John Englart
Some good news: coal is dead.
A Bhutanese woman installs a solar panel. Credit: ADB
If you need a white man in a suit to tell it to you, here it is from the mouth of Jim Barry of BlackRock, the world’s largest investment group with $5 trillion in assets.
Barry even directly spoke out against the Adani Carmichael coal mine which we brought up as an example of the bad Australian government pursuing a bad idea to the literal end of the earth in Part 2 of this month’s “The World at 1C.”
According to BP (yes, you read that right), global demand for coal is in decline for the second year in a row. Coal production dropped by 7.9% in China and a whopping 19% in the U.S. despite “coal man” Trump being in charge.
Cities such as Melbourne are moving away from cars altogether. Credit: Jes
As electric vehicles fall in price and cities move away from cars altogether the demand for oil will fall further.
The collapse of coal has of course been hastened by another year of surging renewable energy, which contributed 40% of the total increase of world energy power generation last year.
The total global solar capacity has increased from 6GW to 303GW in the last 10 years. Credit: REN21
In other 100% good news, Qinghai province in China ran entirely on renewables for a week. 5.8 million people live in Qinghai.
Fewer people live on the small Greek island of Tilos, but it is no less impressive that it is poised to go 100% renewable by installing wind and solar and creating a micro-grid to shift away from a dependence on imported fossil fuel-generated electricity.
China installed more than double the amount of additional solar capacity as the United States last year. Credit: REN21
And now in some not-so-good news, the dogmatic pursuit of hydrocarbons continues with Statoil taking up BP’s licence to drill an exploratory bore in the Great Australian Bight.
European readers should not feel any sense of superiority: EU ministers are doing their best to water down energy saving legislation which would undermine the EU’s already weak pledge to the Paris Agreement. There are also a slew of unnecessary and risky gas infrastructure projects in the pipeline from Northern Ireland to Estonia.
These types of bad energy projects are being protected by bad governments and propped up by bad banks to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. Worryingly, even multilateral banks such as the World Bank continue to subsidise fossil fuel exploration and extraction, and even the Green Climate Fund risks being polluted — as the Board meets in South Korea this month, activists have been demanding that the Fund not accredit notorious coal-pushers like the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi (MUFJ).
G20 countries talk the talk on climate change, but their energy policies give them away. Credit: OilChange International
Given the persistent political support for and vested interests in the carbon economy, it is clear that market changes and tech developments alone will not wash away the oil stains we have left behind.
Rather, much more drastic steps are needed to transform the energy system, and the world, to be fairer, cleaner, and more equitable. Yes, fossil fuels might soon be replaced but some of the supposed solutions are actually more socially and ecologically damaging: mega-hydro and biofuels are killing the Amazon, for example.
There are 1 billion people without energy access. Their needs must be met as part of the global energy transformation. Credit: Patrick Bentley/SolarAid
The failure to accept that the era of fossil fuels is over will really hurt workers in those industries. But the details of the new energy system are still up for debate.
Under the current system, the energy sector is the biggest contributor to climate change yet 1 billion people lack electricity. Clearly, there is a problem not only with the energy source but with the way both electrical and political power are distributed.
Campaigns for true energy transformation take aim at the system not merely the sources it relies on. Reclaim Power will return in autumn.
Which is why it is sometimes disappointing to read, as we did this month, about renewable energy revolutions which merely replace coal with wind and so on, rather than build alternate approaches to ownership and management.
New research shows that many cities around are doing just this by turning their back on privatization of all public services and reclaiming them for the public good.
In Germany the similar idea of Energiewende, or “energy transformation” has gained much traction in recent years. Though not without challenges, as this new paper notes, it gives hope and “to give hope is more radical than to despair convincingly.”
Though the scale of the climate crisis is overwhelming and any realistic assessment would say we have very little chance of making the broad socio-economic changes required to avert an all out collapse of civilization, we have to shake off the disbelief that another world is indeed possible and on her way.
Our job then becomes to box clever, to leverage our limited power for immediate gains even as we continue to build alliances for transformation. Our job is to keep hope alive.
All around the world, this is already happening in a variety of ways which we must let inform and inspire us.
Barely one week ago in the Philippines a diverse set of grassroots movements, consumer groups, and affected communities brought a series of petitions to the Energy Regulatory Commission to try and stop power distribution company Meralco from setting up power supply agreements with 7 coal-fired plants.
Communities in the Philippines are engaged in a long-standing battle against coal mining
If it goes ahead, the agreement would lock the Philippines into a further 20 years of coal power so movements are understandably ready to battle.
Similarly, communities in Australia are fighting not only the Adani Carmichael mega coal mine but also a proposed new coal seam gas development in Narrabri. Almost 23,000 people lodged objections with the Department of Planning and Environment.
In Northern Ireland, environmentalists beat the government in the appeals court over its decision not to immediately stop illegal sand dredging in Lough Neagh, an ecologically important and legally protected bird sanctuary.
Sand dredging in Lough Neagh is yet another extractive industry driving climate change and ecological destruction
Much of the sand is destined for new road infrastructure in a country already overly reliant on and polluted by private transport vehicles.
The Canadian Supreme Court handed a small but significant win to a Guatemalan community in its long-running battle with Canadian mining bandits Tahoe, who have bullied, harassed, and liquidated any opponents to their business. The Court ruled that the community’s legal case against Tahoe be allowed to proceed in British Columbia.
In another important court decision, the now famous Standing Rock Sioux were validated as a federal judge ruled that the permits for the Dakota Access Pipeline were granted in violation of the law.
The Standing Rock protest camp drew thousands of supporters from around the U.S. when it was first set up
Also in the U.S. another potentially explosive legal challenge looms as last week 21 young people were granted permission to take their case against the federal government to trial starting February 2018.
They are arguing that the U.S. government is violating their constitutional right to a healthy climate system by supporting fossil fuels and continuing to emit dangerous levels of greenhouse gases.
Sometimes the law fails to deliver justice and so our resistance must also include direct challenges to the governments and industries that are driving climate chaos.
The community opposition to fracking in Lancashire involves the local council. Credit: Claire Stevo
In the U.K. this has resulted in an ongoing site battle to prevent the first case of fracking. Despite fierce community and municipal opposition, the Tory government in London has put its weight behind the drill going ahead.
The police have seemingly put their weight behind the company as they inflict bodily harm on peaceful protestors.
With no shortage of fossil fuel foolery in Australia, activists there have their work cut out. In June they occupied a coal stockpile in the world’s largest coal port and sent a strong message to the Commonwealth Bank who are major coal financiers.
The message to Commonwealth Bank was clear: Stop Funding Coal
Religious leaders actually occupied the headquarters of the Commonwealth Bank in protest against its funding of the infamous Adani Carmichael coal mine.
Direct action is important because it creates an atmosphere of pressure on the polluters and their pals, but there are myriad ways of contributing to such pressure. For example, in Indonesia a coal transport railway was suspended following some brave investigative journalism which showed the proper permits had not been obtained.
In a further example that pressure works, the Norwegian parliament banned the public procurement and use of palm oil biofuels, which are often worse for the climate than fossil fuels.
Similarly, Sweden’s largest pension fund divested itself of stocks from companies like ExxonMobil whose entire business is based on destroying the climate.
The AIIB is under pressure to go further and commit to a ban on fossil fuel financing
Even the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was forced to tone down its enthusiasm for fossil fuels at a recent meeting, saying that it “will not consider proposals if we are concerned about the environmental and reputational impact.”
While these stories highlight the possibilities of collective action, we also must contemplate the impossible and reevaluate our strategies all the time.
We are vaguely aware, in our guts, that climate change really is a reckoning for our species. And we must extend our fight to the battleground of human imagination.
BP sponshorship of public institutions such as the British Museum has been incessantly challenged by activists in an attempt to strip them of their social license. Credit: Anna Branthwaite
This needn’t be purely philosophical: some efforts to that end include fighting climate change denial in the classroom, or tackling corporate capture of the arts, or naming a breached iceberg after those responsible for the global warming.
Though our struggles are collective rather than individual, at times it is important to highlight the stories of specific activists or movements.
A solar shop in Eastern Nepal run by Runa Jha. Credit: Lucy EJ Woods
So this month we say congratulations to the Dakota Sioux for winning a $250,000 grant for their work towards the energy transition and to the Nepali women who are doing it for themselves by running solar businesses, winning a £20,000 prize as a result.
We say thank you to 98-year old Frances Crow who was arrested for blockading a gas pipeline in Massachusetts and to Murrawah Johnson, a young aboriginal woman who is honouring her grandparents and all of us by fighting coal in Australia.
We send our solidarity to Abelino Chub Caal, an environmental and human rights campaigner in Guatemala who has been detained without trial for a year, and to Aura Lolita Chavez, also in Guatemala, who has been threatened for her work in bringing polluting mining companies to justice.
We express our rage at the murder of Carlos Maaz Coc in Guatemala. He was killed at a peaceful protest calling for the cleanup of a lake contaminated by mining.
Finally, we express our sadness at the loss of Koreti Tiumalu, a fearless Pacific Warrior who will be missed by many around the world.