Stormy days ahead
Global warming is no longer an abstract topic as its impact is being experienced across the world in different ways, says Nnimmo Bassey. The recent spate of extreme weather events is a poignant reminder of the havoc they can wreak. So long as the power of the fossil fuel industry remains unabated, the prospect of curbing carbon emissions to avert the looming climate crisis is bleak.
SOCIAL media and satellite television have made it possible for us to witness unfolding weather disasters in real time. Fears are shared with loved ones as people send teary assurances that they are safe in the midst of raging bush fires, storms, hurricanes and cyclones. We are also able to watch fearless, even reckless people taking selfies while monster storms approach and sometimes knock them off their feet. Stories of melting ice caps and changing weather patterns are tending towards becoming tales that are expected.
The scenarios point to the tensions around climate change. On one hand are those who believe that the increasing frequency of furious weather events is the result of global warming, while on the other hand are climate deniers who believe that the unfolding changes are normal and that there have been bigger storms in the past.
Recently I sat for over one hour having a conversation with Mika Anttonen, an oil mogul whose company, St1 Group Oy, among other things, bought up all the Shell gas stations in Nordic countries. He uses profits to fund subsidiaries combating climate change through wind power, geothermal heat and waste-based ethanol fuel.1 His company is currently embarking on a geothermal project that involves drilling two holes 7 km into the earth's crust to generate about 40 megawatts of energy for heating purposes. At the time of our conversation, the holes had already gone over 5 km into the belly of the earth. He also has plans to embark on creating a 'Carbon Farm' in the Sahara Desert with the aim of taking carbon out of the atmosphere. In his view, the capturing of carbon from the atmosphere through a natural carbon capture and storage system would be a means of paying the 'carbon debt'. His demonstration project would capture 100,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, take up 5,000 to 10,000 hectares of land and use desalinated sea water to grow a eucalyptus plantation interspersed with rows of crops for local consumption.
Apart from the contentious prospect of growing eucalyptus in the Sahara for carbon offsetting, the contradiction here is that a corporation is using cash generated from refining and sales of fossil fuels to fund alternative energy development - a move that does not unhinge the world from the fossil civilisation paradigm. And St1 is not in a hurry to remove its roots from fossils.
Anttonen, however, agreed that fossil fuel companies constitute a major stumbling block in the global efforts to tackle climate change. He also stressed that what governments and the multilateral institutions must do is to regulate fossil fuel corporations and commit them to a phased stoppage of extraction over the next few decades because the world cannot afford to keep on adding to the stock of carbon in the atmosphere. According to him, the corporations will not stop extracting unless they are incentivised by being faced with a serious penalty for non-compliance. He notes that governments refuse to act, on the premise that fossil fuel corporations would not agree to be regulated. In other words, capitalist logic and accumulated power accords fossil fuel corporations the leverage to capture institutions to which they ought to be subject as corporate citizens.
The call to keep fossils in the ground has been voiced for more than a decade, having risen from when we first raised it in the webs of resistance within Oilwatch International. Other groups have taken this up and the call is now a sharp galvanising demand by many civil society groups and movements for a halt to the failing petroleum civilisation. In recent years, Oil Change International has canvassed a 'managed' decline of the use of fossil fuels to which the carbon majors ought to pay close attention.
In a working paper titled 'Addressing fossil fuel production under the UNFCCC: Paris and beyond',2 the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) speaks about how countries could communicate their plans and actions in phasing out fossil fuels by means including through their 'Nationally Determined Contributions' (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement on climate change. The paper notes the absence of clear guidance in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on how countries could report on plans or activities relating to fossil fuels. It, however, notes that countries could nevertheless make such reports and that these could aid debates and reflections that could lead to commitments to provide financial support for actions as well as leading some countries to make reciprocal commitments and generally help raise levels of ambition towards curbing the reliance on fossil fuels.
In the words of the paper, 'Reporting actions to the UNFCCC (and by virtue, to other nations) helps those actions get recognised as aiding global climate mitigation efforts. While several processes exist under the Paris Agreement for countries to communicate pledges and plans, and report on their progress - such as NDCs, LTSs [long-term strategies], annual GHG [greenhouse gas] inventories and biennial reports - there is no explicit guidance for nations to report on plans or activities relating to fossil fuel extraction or production. Theoretically, nothing prevents any country from submitting information to the UNFCCC related to fossil fuel supply. However, in the absence of clear guidance, or an explicit call to include information on fossil fuel supply, there are very few incentives for Parties to provide information on supply-side actions planned or taken and, subsequently, for such actions to gain recognition.'
One thing we confirmed from our conversation with Anttonen is that we do not only have climate deniers among politicians, we have many governments and institutions that have been absolutely captured by corporations and choose to remain in a wilful but contradictory state of knowing and denial. The SEI paper affirms this: 'As long as fossil fuel supply is not explicitly tied to climate change, some producers can be "strategically ignorant" about the impact of extracted fuels on GHG emissions, or the pace of change necessary to ameliorate climate impacts.'
The fact that the days of easy fossil fuels are over does not deter the industry probably because they continue to enjoy hefty subsidies - either financially or through irresponsible piling up of unaccounted environmental and social costs. Thus, they can keep extracting poor-quality crude oil, build new fossil fuel infrastructure and press on with extreme and risky extractions including through fracking.
Concerning this scenario, Friends of the Earth International says that the power of the fossil fuel industry remains unabated. FoEI notes that 'Over 850 new coal plants are planned or under development in 62 countries. Some countries are looking to expand into coal for the first time, which is unthinkable in this day and age. Coal should be dead. Clean community energy alternatives exist and are coming down in cost. Coal fuels energy poverty, increasing exports, heavy industry, human rights abuses, social and environmental degradation and corporate profits.'3
Global warming is no longer an abstract topic. Its impact is being experienced across the world in different ways. The melting ice caps and warmer seas mean a change of current and wind patterns. This has meant wetter and cooler summers in parts of Europe, for example, with some towns recording the coolest day of the year in summer rather than in winter. The implications of these changes are enormous and the impacts cannot be fully imagined at this time.
The hurricanes that hit the United States in recent months were poignant reminders that extreme weather events can wreak havoc that no nation is prepared for. Although the US government has indicated that it is pulling away from global efforts towards tackling climate change, the US has not been, and cannot be, exempted from the impacts of the change. What has miffed the president of the US, from news reports, is that the country is seen as shouldering a disproportionate load in the global climate efforts. That supposition itself is contentious. It could be that he is balking at the plan in the Paris Agreement to raise $100 billion per year from 2020 for a Green Climate Fund to be used for mitigation and adaptation projects in vulnerable nations. $100 billion may seem a huge financial outlay until we consider the damage wrought on Texas by Hurricane Harvey and on Florida by Hurricane Irma.
It is estimated that the two storms reduced the GDP growth of the US by one percentage point in the third quarter of 2017, taking it down to 1.8%. Hurricane Harvey alone is estimated to have caused over $100 billion in damage. Some analysts believe that the recovery cost from Harvey and Irma will be up to $200 billion.4 Hurricane Maria that hit Puerto Rico caused an estimated $95 billion in damage and left the people without electricity and potable water. Before the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) deleted some information on the government's responses to the disaster in Puerto Rico, two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck, just 50% of Puerto Rico had access to drinking water and only 5.4% had electricity.5 Note that we have referred to just three hurricanes that hit the US.
Climate-related disasters have not spared any continent. We recall the floods and mudslides in Sierra Leone, the heavy floods in Bangladesh, Nigeria and elsewhere. A more recent storm killed 25 persons in Costa Rica. When such impacts in vulnerable countries are considered, the need for the UNFCCC to critically consider and conclude deliberations on loss and damage from climate change becomes inescapable. The consideration must robustly include accountability by those whose actions or inaction are factors responsible for the harm. This is where ecological and climate debts must be considered, recognised and accounted for. It also requires that oil companies and other fossil fuel corporations be held to account as their carbon extractive activities are solidly at the beginning of the chain of the unfolding disasters.
It has been argued that the UN convention on refugees has no recognition for climate refugees. That may be so, but the reality is that people are displaced by climate change impacts. And that is strong enough reason for the convention to be reviewed.
The forced movement of people in response to climate-related events compromises their human rights. Human rights laws will play an important role where there is violation of rights due to the impacts of climate change. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments demand that states take steps to prevent the violation of human rights. Under Article 2 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, states have an obligation to undertake steps, individually and through international assistance and cooperation, to fulfil rights, and each state is required to use 'the maximum of its available resources to that end'.6
It cannot be ignored that global warming and related factors are forcing people to look for higher and safer ground. The slogan 'everyone has a right not to migrate' and not to be a refugee is very instructive. The fact, though, is that climate change is forcing people to migrate. Consider the 2-3 million people who have been displaced by the shrinkage of Lake Chad shared by Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. The loss of 90% of its size in the 1960s has led to loss of opportunities for fisherfolks and pastoralists, among others. It has also generated a corps of youths vulnerable to cooption into social groups that they would not have previously considered. Climate change is implicated as a factor in the raging conflicts in the Lake Chad region as well as the internecine conflicts between pastoralists and farmers in Nigeria.
The fact that global warming exacerbates conflicts cannot be denied, although some have argued that it is not the most important factor in conflict generation. It is generally agreed that factors such as droughts do raise the likelihood of 'sustained conflict' among peoples that depend on agriculture and are vulnerable to weather variabilities.7
The looming climate disasters are realities that must be confronted. Warning signals that should be the impetus for socio-political change continue to be ignored. Rather than changing the exploitative economic paradigm, we are content with greening the economy. Rather than reduce consumption and waste, we are content to merely increase efficiency. So, mining of minerals and water continues as if these are inexhaustible. Exploitation and extinction of species fail to raise sufficient alarm. Toxic wastes are shipped, traded or simply dumped in an exportation of death that should never be tolerated. Where lands become unproductive, they are grabbed elsewhere in the name of increasing food production. There is scant consideration of the fact that the foods produced may be solely for export, for others to enjoy rather than for those who live on the land.
Land for food
In a dialogue with farmers and pastoralists in Nigeria,8 we stressed that 'soil quality has direct impact on the quality of harvests. Poor soils produce poor yields and climate change affects the quality and availability of soil for food production. We experience this directly when there are floods or droughts. The increasing desertification in Nigeria can be attributed in part to climate change. Poor soil management is equally responsible for incidents of desertification that is sometimes erroneously described as the "southward march" of the Sahara Desert.' We also noted that degraded lands sometimes get labelled as 'marginal lands', thus setting them up to be grabbed and taken away from communities.
Even small increases in temperature will negatively impact the production of cereals such as maize. Global warming may lead to an increase in pests, diseases and post-harvest losses. In addition, unusual weather variability coupled with extreme weather events also lead to damaged infrastructure; coastal erosion and loss of land and fishing grounds; and intrusion of salt water into freshwater systems, thus affecting marine ecosystems. Possibilities of rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50% by 2020 and reduction in grassland and grain production will adversely affect animal husbandry.
Another COP looms
We are not seeing any signal that the upcoming Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC, which is to take place in Bonn in November, will produce anything that raises the hope of serious concerted climate action by governments. While the targets set by the Paris Agreement of limiting global warming to 1.5oC or well below 2oC will be hyped, the reality is that commitments made by governments already set the path for a much warmer world. We are faced with possibilities of catastrophic temperatures of over 3oC above pre-industrial levels. With extreme weather events such as storms, wildfires and ice shelf collapse occurring even at a 1oC temperature rise, there is no time at all for politicking with climate change.
The Bonn conference will in one sense be a test case for the world. Will nations wake up to the emergency situation confronting the globe and make definite and binding commitments? Or will they allow the US, which has turned its back on the Paris Agreement but will be at the COP negotiating table, to block the routes to action?
Nnimmo Bassey is director of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation, an ecological think-tank based in Nigeria.
1 See https://www.forbes.com/profile/mika-anttonen/
2 Piggot, Georgia et al. September 2017. 'Addressing fossil fuel production under the UNFCCC: Paris and beyond'. SEI Working Paper.
3 FoEI. 4 October 2017. 'Why we need to stand as one globally to combat climate change'. http://www.foei.org/news/need-stand-one-globally-combat-climate-change
4 Dillow, Clay. 22 September 2017. 'The Hidden Costs of Hurricanes'. Fortune. http://fortune.com/2017/09/22/hurricane-maria-irma-harvey-damage-cost/
An estimate at https://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/accuweather-predicts-economic-cost-of-harvey-irma-to-be-290-billion/70002686 puts the cost at $290 billion.
5 Chow, Lorraine. 6 October 2017. 'FEMA scrubs data about Puerto Rico's lack of water and electricity'. EcoWatch. https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/hurricane-maria
6 Narang, Sonali. 2017. 'Impacts of Anthropogenic Climate Change on Human Rights. A Look at the Threats for India'. https://m.grin.com/document/376778
7 The Conversation. 17 October 2016. 'Link between climate change and armed conflict is exaggerated - new study'. https://theconversation.com/link-between-climate-change-and-armed-conflict-is-exaggerated-new-study-67182
8 Bassey, Nnimmo. October 2017. 'Climate Change, Land, Food and Pastoralism'. https://nnimmobassey.net/2017/09/29/climate-change-land-food-and-pastoralism/
*Third World Resurgence No. 322/323, Jun/July 2017, pp 13-15