Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 19 May 2014

More alarming news on climate 

The melting of Western Antarctica’s glaciers is part of this month’s new reports on climate change, but will these catalyse the required actions? 


The last month has seen new reports on the seriousness of the climate crisis.  All the more urgent then that globally coordinated action should rise to match the alarming events taking place on the ground.

This is not happening, at least not yet.  And that’s a pity.  It’s as if the ship is sinking, the warning bells have sounded, but the passengers are still in their cabins or in the dining room discussing what to do.

This week the Green Climate Fund board meets in Songdu, South Korea. It is supposed to be the premier financier of climate programmes in developing countries.

But it is moving slowly, having not yet succeeded in mobilising funds.  The goal of amassing US$100 billion a year, which was promised in 2011 by developed countries, is so far a mirage.

The past month’s warnings began with the mitigation report of the UN’s climate scientific panel, the IPCC.

Its summary showed that Greenhouse Gas emissions are rising so rapidly that the concentration of these gases in the atmosphere could jump from 430 ppm of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2011 to 750-1,300 ppm by 2100.  Anything above 450-500 ppm is very dangerous.

It is likely that the global temperature will rise in 2100 by 3.7 to 4.8 degrees centigrade above the pre-industrial levels.  A rise by over 2 degree is considered disastrous while a 4 degree rise would be catastrophic.

On 12 May, scientists in America revealed that gigantic glaciers in Western Antarctica, at the Southern most part of our world, are melting so fast that the process cannot be reversed.

At six glaciers in the Amundsen Sea, the grounding lines (the points where the floating portion of a glacier meets the land) are thinning.  Parts of the glaciers that had been “grounded” are now floating.

The retreat of the glaciers will lead to more floating and melting of the glaciers, and become a major cause of sea-level rise.  The loss of the whole of Western Antarctica would raise global sea levels by up to 1.2 meters over the next two centuries, according to papers by two sets of scientists.  

Coastal areas and low-lying cities will be flooded, billions of people will have to relocate, and a lot of infrastructure, homes and buildings will be lost. 

On 5 May, the White House released the National Climate Assessment, a report on the US situation. 

It warned that “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present.

“Summers are longer and hotter, and extended periods of unusual heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced. Winters are generally shorter and warmer. Rain comes in heavier downpours. People are seeing changes in the length and severity of seasonal allergies, the plant varieties that thrive in their gardens, and the kinds of birds they see in any particular month in their neighborhoods.”

On 13 May, the New York Times reported on a warning by a military research agency that climate change poses a severe risk to national security and catalyzes global political conflict.

Climate change-induced drought in the Middle East and Africa is leading to conflicts over food and water and escalating regional and ethnic tensions into violent clashes, while rising sea levels are putting people and food supplies in coastal regions like eastern India, Bangladesh and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam at risk and could lead to a new wave of refugees, according to the report of the CAN Corporation Military Advisory Board.

United States’ Secretary of State John Kerry and Pentagon officials said the report will influence the country’s foreign and military policy.

President Obama and his administration may take national climate change policy seriously, but they are unfortunately opposed by the Republican Party and Congress.

Since broader climate legislation is not possible, the President is taking some executive actions to curb emissions, but some of these are also being challenged through Congress.

The US is also constrained in what it can offer in global climate negotiations either in mitigation or in providing funds and transferring technology to developing countries, and this puts seriously limits what can be achieved through a global agreement.

The Green Climate Fund was set up under the UN Climate Convention to be the symbol and main provider of funds for developing countries to undertake climate actions.

However, the Fund has not yet succeeded in mobilising funds of any notable size. At its meeting this week, the Board will try to finalise papers on eight issues that are needed to get the Fund moving.

Completing decisions on the issues, which include the Fund’s structure, investment and risk framework, guidelines for mitigation, adaptation and private sector activities, is seen as a  required milestone towards obtaining the initial funds.

How much funds will be made available is a key issue in getting an international climate agreement.  The mood is presently pessimistic.

Hopefully all the new reports with more evidence of the severity of the climate crisis on the ground will improve the atmosphere.