Floods, wildfires, droughts, heat waves and other climate-related events worldwide have intensified over the past year.
The August 6 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has sounded the alarm.
According to the IPCC, delays in curbing fossil fuel emissions mean global warming will intensify over the next 30 years, though there is still a short window to prevent a catastrophic future.
Here in California, and across the Western United States, the acceleration of extreme weather this past year manifested in intensified heat waves, drought and wildfires. Similar conditions are now reaching into Canada.
Droughts intensified in California for the past two decades and now last through late spring, summer and early autumn. The wet season is generally shorter and drier.
Rainfall in the 2020–21 wet season was especially sparse, and in early August, years of drought resulted in exceptional conditions.
According to federal government agencies, 95% of California is in drought. Seven percent of the state is classed as in “severe drought”, with inadequate land for grazing animals. Under these conditions, the fire season is longer, with higher burn intensity. Trees are stressed and the prevalence of wildlife disease rises.
About 40% of the state is in “extreme drought”, where little pasture remains and livestock need supplemental feed and are sold to reduce herds. Fruit trees bud early and producers begin irrigating in the winter. Under these conditions, the fire season lasts year-round, fires occur in typically wet parts of the state and there are fire bans. There is not enough water for agriculture, wildlife and urban needs, reservoirs are extremely low and hydroelectricity supply is restricted.
Almost 50% of the state is classed as in “exceptional drought”, characterised by fields being left fallow, orchards being removed, low vegetable yields and a small honey harvest. There are higher numbers of fires and extensive areas burned.
Under these conditions, fish have to be rescued and relocated. Pine beetles infest trees and forest mortality is high. Wetlands dry up and the survival of native plants and animals is low. Fewer wildflowers bloom, wildlife death is widespread and algal blooms appear in lakes.
Since early June, temperatures across the Western US and into Canada set records well above 40⁰C. More fires are expected in the months ahead.
Six of the largest seven fires in California occurred since August last year. Seventeen of the 20 largest fires occurred since 2000.
This acceleration of extreme weather “is only the beginning” said the New York Times. “Even if nations started sharply cutting emissions today, total global warming is likely to be around 1.5 degrees Celsius [above pre-industrial levels] within the next two decades, a hotter future that is now essentially locked in.
“At 1.5 degrees of warming, scientists have found, the dangers grow considerably. Nearly one billion people worldwide could swelter in more frequent life-threatening heat waves. Hundreds of millions more would struggle for water because of droughts.
“Some animal and plant species alive today will be gone. Coral reefs, which sustain fisheries for large swaths of the globe, will suffer more frequent die-offs.”
Piers Forster, a climate scientist at the University of Leeds and one of the hundreds of international experts who helped write the report, told the NYT: “We can expect a significant jump in extreme weather over the next 20 or 30 years.”
The NYT notes that the IPCC report concludes that “humanity can still prevent the planet from getting even hotter”, but to do so “would require a coordinated effort to stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by around 2050, which would entail a rapid shift away from fossil fuels starting immediately, as well as potentially removing vast amounts of carbon from the air”.
“If that happened, global warming would probably level off at around 1.5⁰C, the report concludes.
“But if nations fail in that effort, global average temperatures will keep rising — potentially passing 2 degrees, 3 degrees or even 4 degrees … every additional degree of warming brings far greater perils, such as ever more vicious floods and heat waves, worsening droughts and accelerating sea level rise that could threaten the existence of some island nations.
“The hotter the planet gets, the greater the risks of crossing dangerous ‘tipping points’, like the irreversible collapse of the immense ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica.”
The IPCC report laid the blame for global warming on human influence, and said that in 2019, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were higher than at any time in at least 2 million years.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the report a “code red for humanity”.
But how many nations are even explaining this “code red” emergency to their populations — let alone doing anything about it? The vast majority of humanity is unaware of this report.
There is silence from all levels of government in the US, rather than the mobilisation needed to immediately and rapidly move away from burning fossil fuels.
During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden said he would act on climate change. Now in office, he is going in the opposite direction.
Biden has approved new pipelines to bring crude oil from the Canadian tar sands. Extracting oil from the tar sands emits three times more greenhouse gas (GHG) than other sources of crude, and more, as it is refined and burned.
Native Americans and their allies — who demonstrated at Standing Rock — are well aware of the dangers these pipelines and the oil they transport pose.
Biden is now urging OPEC to raise oil output, to bring down domestic petrol prices and bolster his image.
Since taking office, his administration has approved more than 2000 new permits for gas drilling and fracking on federal land.
Biden says his goal is net zero carbon emissions by 2050, but is doing nothing to even start to reach that goal. His vague promise about 2050 falls way short of the urgent action required.
Former President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the 2015 Paris Climate Accords.
Biden has rejoined the Accords, but like all previous agreements going back to the 1992 Kyoto Protocol, the US has worked — under all presidents including Barack Obama — to make sure they are toothless, without any firm agreements or binding action.
The “advanced” capitalist countries, which are most responsible historically for the burning of fossil fuels and the current crisis, have a responsibility to the poorer nations to help them reduce emissions.
One of the most threatened countries is Bangladesh, already experiencing extreme heat waves and flooding due to global warming. Bangladeshi climate scientist Saleemul Huq told Democracy Now!: “It’s time for the rich countries to do what they agreed to in Paris: keep the global temperature below 1.5 degrees and provide $100 billion a year to developing countries to tackle climate change. They promised, but didn’t deliver.”
Another international climate conference (COP26) is scheduled for November in Glasgow. Given the lack of response by rich nations to the latest IPCC report, it would be foolish to get our hopes up.