Forget the world as we knew it

Follow the Money, CleanBiz.Asia

It was like an elephant in the corner of the room. Hurricane Sandy came roaring through the Northeast United States, disrupting the lives of millions while chalking up to USD45 billion worth of damage, and yet neither presidential candidate mentioned climate change or flagged it as a policy imperative. Throughout the latter weeks of the campaign trail it became painfully obvious that neither Obama nor Romney were willing to utter policy pledges on climate change or anything environmental that could be considered hippy yogurt-weaving scare mongering.

The reality is that it doesn’t matter who is in the White House, the time for political posturing has passed, as has any hope of limiting the damage that will befall Asia, like the rest of the globe. That elephant is now sitting on the sofa.

While the EU and small island states have criticized the US for saying the target of keeping global warming below 2°C should be removed from climate talks, countries like India and China have also refused. But the evidence is building that we’ve done far too little, too late to achieve even this minimal target.

With the exception of the vocal few, the debate on climate change and its effects continues to be obscured by often well-meaning but ultimately peripheral issues. Most recently was a widely reported story based on research from Australian research organization The Climate Institute and prepared by project developer Climate Bridge. Ultimately it estimates that China’s nascent carbon emissions trading scheme could be a world-changer, with a prospective nationwide system in place by 2015-2016, making it the largest in the world.

The report goes on that China’s level of commitment to clean and green policies could act as a positive lever on the next round of climate talks of minister-level negotiations in Doha, Qatar in November under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Now that’s a positive climate story, right?

In reality it’s just noise. There has been some debate about giving so much media space to climate skeptics since their science detracts from what is now considered the scientific consensus. In some quarters their argument is akin to teaching astrophysics under the guise of ‘intelligent design’. Indeed it ignores the most recent evidence; that climate change will not only bring a gradual temperature rise but a far more regular occurrence of extremes of climate. It is too late to halt disastrous natural and probably geo-political incidents.

Earlier in the year two Dutch researchers Geert Jan van Oldenborgh and Rein Haarsma from the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute blogged about looking over an old paper written by a team of atmospheric physicists led by James Hansen at NASA’s Institute for Space Studies at Goddard Space Flight Center. They found based on their new data Hansen’s 1981 global warming projections were very much spot on in terms of matching temperature rises. Where he fell down was that he underestimated the rate of upward climb.

Five months later, Hansen wrote an OpEd in the Washington Post, called Climate change is here — and worse than we thought, highlighting peer-reviewed research which showed that his testimony to the US Senate in 1988 – considered dark at the time – was actually far too optimistic. Extremes of weather would become the norm. He showed that the frequency of “extreme anomalies” in the weather – which is defined as more than three standard deviations from the mean – has increased 10-fold.

The world’s largest insurance company, Munich Re, concluded in October that climate is becoming more volatile. The year before, Professor Peter Höppe, head of Munich Re’s Geo Risks Research said categorically: “This long-term trend can no longer be explained by natural climate oscillations alone. The probability is that climate change is contributing to some of the warming of the world’s oceans.”

The sheer number of record-breaking weather conditions around the world in the past year goes beyond remarkable, to being statistically significant.

Last month a briefing by the UK’s Environment Agency, Met Office and Center for Ecology & Hydrology warned the UK must plan for periodic swings of drought conditions and flooding. It had recorded the driest spring for over a century which gave way to the wettest recorded April to June. Such swings have never been recorded before.

July was the hottest month in the US since records began in 1895 and May was the warmest on record for the Northern Hemisphere. Even more imperative was that it was the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, reported Rolling Stone.

The record for the hottest rain was a rain shower at 109°F (43°C) observed in Mecca, Saudi Arabia on June 5, 2012, according to weather records researcher Maximiliano Herrera. Astonishingly, this was surpassed in August in a desert in California. Temperatures for Needles hit record levels and rain began falling at a temperature of 115°F (46.1°C). Most of the rain evaporated, since the humidity was only 11 percent.

In August Johannesburg and Pretoria, South Africa, were hit with an unusual snowfall. According to South African Weather Service records, it has only snowed in Johannesburg on 22 other days in the last 103 years. In the same month at least 18 people were killed by the most powerful typhoon to hit South Korea in almost a decade. Last December when Tropical Storm Washi ripped through the Philippine city of Cagayan de Oro, one day’s rainfall was more than double the city’s entire average rainfall for the month.

The list of events continue from permafrost melting, record iceberg flows to record precipitation or droughts. Indeed, Hansen says his peer reviewed research showed that the deadly European heat wave of 2003 and the Russian heat wave of 2010 would not have happened without global warming.

What should really be concentrating our minds are the figures from the Copenhagen Accord signed by 167 countries. Although widely seen as little more than a fig-leaf for the political ineptitude of nations like the US, Canada, Australia, China and India, it did actually agree to limit increases in temperature by 2°C. In essence even these climate criminal politicians accepted that to avoid global catastrophe we had to remain within the 2°C rise limit.

Figures collated by Bill McKibben from Rolling Stone magazine make a compelling argument for just how deep the sewer we’re wading around in really is. So far we’ve only increased temperatures by 0.8°C, according to his research. Numerous scientific institutions, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change agree that to stay within the 2°C we can emit up to 565 more gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (GTCO2) into the atmosphere by 2020.

That brings us to a piece of research done by the London-based Carbon Tracker Initiative, whose analysts looked at climate risk in relation to investments. The Unburnable Carbon Report found that the top 200 listed coal, gas and oil companies had over 700 GTCO2 reserves. All of the proven reserves owned by private and public companies and governments are equivalent to 2,795 GTCO2.

And that doesn’t take account the effects of deforestation, which contributes almost 20 percent to the annual carbon rise.

What this means is that unless investors, stock markets and governments make a readjustment to corporate valuations, we do not stand a chance holding the line at 2°C –a target that many nations are already wriggling to get out of at this month’s meeting in Doha. And we know how likely that is considering the sums involved in this seismic shift in the capitalist bulwarks of the stock markets, would make the sums of assets lost during the past recession look like a pimple on the backside of that sofa-sitting elephant.

The impact of these inevitabilities is clear. More frequent and ferocious tropical storms and hurricanes will threaten Asia’s coastal populations; over 60 percent of Asia’s population or 2.1 billion people live within 400 kilometers of a coast according to the UN.

The UN Stern Report found that temperatures are expected to increase more rapidly in the arid areas of northern Pakistan and India and western China. Models also indicate rising rainfall concentration throughout much of the region, including greater rainfall during the summer monsoon, while winter rainfall is likely to decline in south and Southeast Asia. Since the majority of the estimated 500 million rural poor in the Asia/Pacific region are subsistence farmers, occupying mainly rain-fed land,  the dramatic impact in rainfall fluctuations make widespread food shortages are inevitable.

It also shows sea levels likely to rise by up to 16 centimeters by 2030, destroying many low level islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Floodplains across the region will be inundated ever-more frequent storms that are faster moving and bring water to higher levels. Bangladesh and the Mekong delta would be ravaged.

Many of the leaders of the most populous and developed nations – notoriously those of India, Canada, Russia, China and the US – should realize that if the human race is around in 100 years’ time, they will be regarded in the same way we see war criminals today. Their abject lack of backbone and the blatant disregard for the evidence compounds their inaction.

The argument of developing nations that they should have the unfettered right to consume resources and burn fossil fuels is an argument of political correctness gone genocidal. Elsewhere, the pattern of unsustainable growth, waste and corrupted capitalism cannot go unchanged.

Now we have to prepare for the worst the planet has to throw at us.

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