By Jayashree Nandi
Fires ravage Brazil’s Amazon and Australia. Venice is swamped by flooding not seen in decades. Extreme weather events sound alarm, and calls for action grow louder across the world. But leaders fail to make any headway.
Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg’s “how dare you” retort at the United Nations Climate Summit in New York this September summed up the frustration of activists in a year that saw little progress in terms of coming up with a plan for battling climate change.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released two significant reports this year: a special report on climate change and land in August, and another on the state of Oceans and Cryosphere in September.
Both painted a grim picture. The first said land surface temperature has already increased by 1.53°C since the pre-industrial period. The global mean temperature was 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels in the January-October 2019 period, according to a World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) assessment.
The report warned that temperature extremes on land would warm more than global mean temperature, and that parts of Asia and Africa are most vulnerable to desertification.
The second underlined that the oceans are transitioning into “unprecedented” conditions, marked by an increase in temperatures, higher acidification and a decline in the oxygen levels over the rest of the 21st century.
On the ground, the effects were felt. Extreme weather events resulted in the loss of life and infrastructure, and it is feared such occurrences could lead to around 200 million displacements by the end of 2019.
Among the high-impact events were two severe heat waves in Europe in June-July. The first reached its maximum intensity in southern France, where a national record of 46.0°C (1.9°C above the previous record). In the other side of the world, Japan experienced two heat waves.
Australia, too, sweltered in record heat this summer. Central USA, Northern Canada, Northern Russia and Southwest Asia saw unusually high rainfall that led to flooding in many places.
Back home, India’s summer rainfall went awry with 33% deficit in June, which led to acute water scarcity in parts of Peninsular India. Then, the rains were above average in July-September.
Floods in India killed at least 1,000 people this year; Amazon’s wildfires were higher than a 10-year average; and the total fire activity in South America was the highest since 2010, with Bolivia and Venezuela reporting a very high number of fires. According to an analysis by College of Natural Resources of the North Carolina State University, 121,000 fires have broken out across Brazil since January. More than half of these took place in the Amazon, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. The Amazon fires dominated the headlines this year, with many demanding answers from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
Amid warning signs, millions across the world, including youngsters, took to the streets. Holding placards and shouting slogans, they demanded action by the political class. They demanded that accountability be fixed. They reminded that time was running out. And yet, the climate talks in Madrid in December failed to respond to the impacts of extreme weather events.
“People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing,” Thunberg, a teen climate warrior, said at a summit called by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to urge nations to meet the Paris Agreement target of keeping global temperature rise this century well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5°C.
“We are at the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” exclaimed Thunberg.
But the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP25) at Madrid failed to build consensus on crucial pending issues of carbon markets, compensation for climate change-induced “loss and damage” to vulnerable countries, and enhancing nationally determined contribution (NDCs) by parties to meet the Paris Agreement goals.
Only two small countries — Marshall Islands and Suriname — submitted new NDCs in line with the Paris Agreement; Chile and Mongolia proposed to update their NDCs in 2020. Japan, the United States and Australia said they will not update their NDCs.
“The climate emergency did not awaken the conscience of the rich countries and polluting industries that have caused the crises. In Madrid, they continued to block proposals on creating a new fund, including debt relief, to support developing countries recover from climate disasters, such as flooding, droughts and rising sea levels,” said Harjeet Singh, global climate lead, ActionAid International.
“The rich countries, particularly the US, Australia and Japan, used every opportunity to water down proposals and protect the interests of polluting industries. The European Union too refused to follow its Parliament’s lead in recognising the devastation climate change is already causing in the Global South,” he added.
This story originally appeared in Hindustan Times, and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalistic collaboration to strengthen coverage of the climate story.