The ecological point of no return draws ever closer

The first invasion of a sovereign European state since the second world war got underway on February 24th with the Russian assault into Ukraine. Just four days later, the IPCC Working Group 2 report, “Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” was released. It would be almost impossible to overstate the gravity of the IPCC’s findings, yet it was largely pushed to one side as the eyes of the world turned to the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine. The existential struggles that today face millions as a result of conflict, famine and inequality will, in the decades ahead, be dwarfed by a looming global immiseration as the conditions for life on Earth rapidly deteriorate and destabilise, sweeping away societies, economies and entire ecosystems. This is not – yet – inevitable, but on our current path, it is all but certain. I wrote about this for the Business Post earlier this month.

UNITED NATIONS general secretary António Guterres is rarely stuck for words. This week, however, he seemed genuinely flummoxed.

At the launch of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, Guterres spelled out the reasons for his distress plainly: “I have seen many scientific reports in my time, but nothing like this”. In many ways, the sober document, signed off by 195 countries, reads almost like science fiction.

After all, towards the end of this century, on current projections, between half and three quarters of the world’s population will be facing “life-threatening conditions” involving extreme heat and humidity, among a host of other existential crises, according to the landmark scientific assessment report. It warned that any further delay in strong global action “will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all”.

In stark human terms, that means between four and six billion people facing catastrophe within decades. In all of human history, even in its darkest moments, nothing has ever come even remotely close to a tragedy on this scale.

“The facts are undeniable. This abdication of leadership is criminal”, Guterres continued. “The world’s biggest polluters are guilty of arson of our only home”.

Around the world, many entire ecosystems are, he warned, “at the point of no return – now”. What he described as unchecked carbon pollution is “forcing the world’s most vulnerable on a frog march to destruction – now”.

Casting aside the diplomatic niceties of his role as UN chief, Guterres added: “I know people everywhere are anxious and angry. I am too. Now is the time to turn rage into action”.

In order to have an evens chance of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C, global emissions have to fall by at least 45 per cent by 2030. Instead, Guterres pointed out, they are set to increase by some 14 per cent. “That spells catastrophe”.

In tandem with carbon emissions causing the global climate system to destabilise, a pulse of species extinctions unlike anything that has occurred for tens of millions of years is now sweeping the planet. The report found that climate change has caused “substantial damages and increasing irreversible losses to land ecosystems across every region of the world”.

Between 9-14 per cent of the world’s terrestrial and fresh water species face a “very high risk” of extinction once global temperature reaches 1.5C over pre-industrial. At 2C, this could see up to one in five species disappear, and at 3C, this number rises towards one in three. Beyond the 1.5C tripwire, “human and natural systems will face additional severe risks”. In short, things are going to get much worse, much more quickly.

Today, global temperatures have already risen by an estimated 1.1-1.2C, so the safe operating margin for humans and other species before crossing ecological red lines is already vanishingly thin.

Ireland, a wealthy first world country, has set ambitious targets to slash emissions by 4.8 per cent annually until 2025, after which this would ramp up sharply. Instead, preliminary data from the Environmental Protection Agency indicates there will be no emissions reductions whatever this year. We may be a small country, but we are already playing an oversized role in sealing our children’s fate.

And while Guterres pleaded with wealthy countries to “dismantle their coal fleets”, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, reacting to the fast-deteriorating geo-political situation, confirmed that government plans to decommission the giant coal-fired generator at Moneypoint would be suspended “indefinitely”.

Ironically, the ESB spent hundreds of millions of euros in 2021 importing Russian coal to power Moneypoint. Our ongoing failure to aggressively decarbonise leaves Ireland and many other countries heavily dependent on fossil fuel imports (including imports of chemical fertilizers). These are driving rapid climate destabilisation while also bankrolling authoritarian petro-states from Saudi Arabia to Russia to the United Arab Emirates.

Despite its staggeringly grave implications, the launch earlier this week of the IPCC’s report focusing on impacts and adaptation was almost completely overshadowed, as the world’s media focused on the horrific Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Environmental philosopher Timothy Morton coined the phrase “hyperobject” to describe something of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that it defeated traditional means of thinking about it, let alone grasping it. The global climate system, Morton argued, is just such a hyperobject, something that is not just beyond our control, but beyond our ability to understand or perhaps even imagine.

While we can readily empathise with the very real terror facing the people of Ukraine, the increasingly desperate pleas by climate scientists and UN officials to take drastic action to avoid relatively near-term global climate calamity somehow seem sufficiently vague and distant to ignore.

The sound of the climate alarm bell is also being muffled by the constant din of advertising promoting cheap flights, exotic holidays and luxury SUVs. Meanwhile, neoliberal economists in serious media outlets continue to peddle the conceit that the very economic growth and rampant consumerism that is destroying the world can and will continue indefinitely, or that a “greener” version of growth can somehow solve the very problems growth itself causes.

The real takeaway from the IPCC’s latest and gravest report is that human hubris leads inexorably to ecological nemesis. While the report examines the urgent need for adaptation to climate impacts that are already pummelling poorer regions of the world, only aggressive mitigation via shutting down the fossil fuel industry and a radical global shift away from livestock-based agriculture systems offer any realistic hope for a liveable future.

Such a shift could also create the space for what is the key silver lining identified by the report: nature-based solutions. In short, this means a strategic withdrawal of direct human influence from between one third and a half of the world’s surface, including peatlands and sensitive marine areas, allowing ecosystems to begin to recover and re-wild and to so provide the many services upon which life on Earth depends.

If that all sounds utopian or impossible to achieve, just consider for a moment the price of failure.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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