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15 Dec

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The Time to Save the Climate Is Now

A report recently released by the UN strongly suggests that the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius could be impossible to achieve. Researchers are now warning of a tipping point in the fight against climate change.

By Marco Evers

Melting ice in Greenland in August: The planet is warmer than it has been in over 1,000 years.

Mstyslav Chernov/ AP

Melting ice in Greenland in August: The planet is warmer than it has been in over 1,000 years.

There is no longer any doubt: The pace of climate change is accelerating. Of the 20 hottest years measured since records began, 19 have occurred since 2000. The top five were the last five years.

Summer 2019 saw a new temperature record set in Germany of 42.6 degrees Celsius (108 degrees Fahrenheit) and 46 degrees in France. Preliminary findings indicate that the world experienced its warmest average temperatures ever during the months of June, July, September and October of this year.

Only the El Niño-fueled year of 2016 remains unsurpassed, with temperatures boosted by the natural weather phenomenon that heats up the eastern Pacific every few years. Indeed, 2019 could ultimately beat out 2015 for second place and will definitely exceed 2017, 2018 and, as has been clear for some time, each of the 1,000 years before that.

It is, of course, not possible to accurately predict where 2020 will fit in. It is clear, however, that the coming year will once again be marked by extreme weather events such as heat waves, excessive rainfall, thawing of permafrost, glacier melting, tropical storms, forest fires and droughts, even though it remains difficult to attribute a single weather event to climate change.

The Greenhouse Age

The new Greenhouse Age is dawning irrevocably, and the state of the world is becoming increasingly precarious. In October 2019, global sea levels were at their highest ever since the start of satellite measurements in 1993. The oceans are warmer than ever before, and the ice sheets of Greenland and the ice shelves of West Antarctica have thinned to an even greater extent than predicted.

The cause of the highest temperatures in a millennium can be found in the atmosphere. Never before in the past 3 million years has our atmosphere stored as much of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) as it does right now.

Before the Industrial Revolution, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere remained relatively constant for thousands of years at between 260 and 280 parts per million (ppm). But then, mankind began burning ever-increasing amounts of fossil fuels and the CO2 content of the atmosphere rose. The planet reached a value of 320 ppm in May 1960. On May 9, 2013, that figure crossed the 400-ppm threshold for the first time. And in 2019, the concentration reached its record level of 415.7 ppm.

The values decrease slightly from May to September owing to the abundance of plants growing in the Northern Hemisphere in summer that absorb CO2 through photosynthesis. Next spring, though, is sure to set a new record, because despite the Paris Climate Protection Agreement of 2015 and annual climate conferences like the one currently being held in Madrid, global CO2 emissions are still on the rise. After stagnating between 2014 and 2016, they have been growing ever since.

This is the shocking truth about the “climate crisis” that the European Parliament and many countries and cities declared in 2019. At least since the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992, researchers have been warning that CO2 emissions need to be reduced. But that hasn’t happened. On the contrary, annual global CO2 emissions have increased by 60 percent since then.

Four years ago in Paris, countries set the goal of limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius by 2100 or, if possible, even 1.5 degrees Celsius. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calculated one year ago that it is even still theoretically possible to meet the lower of the two targets, but doubts persist about whether it is still feasible politically, economically and in practical terms.

DER SPIEGEL

The world has already warmed by 1.1 degrees compared to pre-Industrial Revolution levels. The IPCC believes that meeting the 1.5-degree target would require an extremely ambitious effort, requiring that the world halve its CO2 to roughly the level of 1979. And we would have to do so by 2030, just 10 years from now. It would also require that CO2 emissions be further reduced to zero by 2040. For the more realistic 2-degree target, CO2 emissions would have to be reduced by a quarter by 2030.

If both targets are missed, the only other possibility for a future with a climate that is still bearable would be for humanity to find a way to artificially extract hundreds of billions of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere at extremely high costs, using large-scale technologies for which there are no guarantees that they will work.

‘Nowhere Near on Track’

The prospects for reaching the 1.5-degree goal, though, are “on the brink of becoming impossible,” researchers warned in the annual “Emissions Gap Report” compiled by the UN Environmental Program and released on Nov. 26. The report takes a look at the CO2 reductions countries should be undertaking with those that they are actually achieving.

Enormous discrepancies become apparent in the report. Even if the countries were to achieve all the climate change goals they have committed themselves to so far, global warming would still exceed 3 degrees Celsius by 2100, according to the report. This would cause a sea level rise of half a meter (1’8″), meaning cities like Miami or Shanghai might have to be abandoned.

In order to achieve the 1.5-degree target, though, the countries of the world would have to multiply their efforts — and ensure that they emit 32 billion tons less CO2 by 2030. The UNEP report states that even just 2-degree target would require a rapid reduction of total CO2 emissions by around 15 billion tons.

It’s not impossible, but it is extremely difficult. Researchers who worked on the UN report say achieving the 1.5 degree goal would require that each country reduce its CO2 emissions by 7.6 percent each year between 2020 and 2030. In order to achieve the 2-degree target, reductions of 2.7 percent per year are necessary. “We are nowhere near on track to meet the Paris Agreement target,” said Petteri Taalas, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, summing up the situation.

Meanwhile, UNEP head Inger Anderson has said that “radical transformations” of economies and societies toward increased sustainability are now needed. Otherwise, she says, we will find ourselves facing a “planet radically altered by climate change.” There is no third option.

The UNEP report is critical of lack of action taken by countries around the world despite the promises they have made. When the first “Emissions Gap Report” was released in 2010, many countries promised to phase out subsidies for fossil fuels, but little has happened since then. Others promised to stop deforestation, but often enough, words weren’t followed by deeds.

The organization is now urging G-20 countries to adopt a series of tough measures. The EU should stop generating power from coal, for instance, and forget about installing gas pipelines from Russia. Europe should also abolish the combustion engine, make buildings more energy-efficient more quickly and massively expand local public transportation everywhere.

The new head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced a “European Green Deal” on Wednesday, which the commission said would likely require investments of over 1 trillion euros in additional climate protection measures by 2030. The aim is for the entire Continent to become carbon-neutral by 2050, at least according to the official plan. The measures that will ultimately be taken to achieve this, however, will likely fall short of UNEP’s demands.

Are wildfires like this one in California the new normal? Scientists are describing an "existential threat to civilization."

AP

Are wildfires like this one in California the new normal? Scientists are describing an “existential threat to civilization.”

The tone of the UNEP report is largely pessimistic, but it does contain passages that leave some room for optimism. The cost of producing renewable energy has fallen much faster than experts thought possible just a few years ago. The price of solar energy, for instance, has dropped by more than 75 percent since 2010, while the price of wind power has gone down by around 35 percent.

In many parts of the world, renewables are already the cheapest source of energy. A surprising number of coal-fired power plants are therefore being shut down sooner than expected, or are simply not built in the first place. The report’s authors see enormous — and realistic — potential for reducing CO2 by 2030 in the areas of green power generation, reforestation, electromobility and more energy-efficient industry.

So, has the era of renewable energies finally dawned? Not entirely.

Tipping Points

UNEP and its partners, including the Stockholm Environment Institute, have published another report. This one examines just how many fossil fuels will be extracted from the earth in the foreseeable future on the basis of decisions that have already been made, investment commitments or permits that have been granted.

The result: Unless governments intervene on a massive scale, the amount of oil, coal and gas being extracted and burned will be 50 percent more than otherwise permitted under the 2 degrees Celsius target, and more than twice as much as the 1.5 degrees Celsius target.

At the moment, the global mean temperature is rising by 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade. From this, barring some radical about-face, it can be surmised that the earth will already be 1.5 degrees hotter in 2040 than in the pre-industrial era — 60 years sooner than predicted by the Paris Climate Agreement.

Prospects like these make some climate researchers nervous, because as global temperatures rise, so does the risk that so-called tipping points in the climate system will be reached. If these thresholds are exceeded, self-reinforcing and perhaps irreversible processes could occur that might lead to even more warming.

A Stalled Gulf Stream

This is already happening with sea ice in the Arctic. Because it’s so bright, it reflects massive amounts of solar energy back into space. But if the ice melts due to global warming, like it is already doing in the summer months, that solar energy gets absorbed by the sea, which then heats up and melts even more ice.

A warmer Arctic also results in more permafrost thawing, which allows huge amounts of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas, to escape into the atmosphere. In turn, the temperature rises even further and more ice melts on, say, Greenland. This fresh water then pours into the Atlantic, which could cause sea levels around the world to rise and could also alter the Gulf Stream, the strong ocean current that warms Western and Northern Europe.

The Gulf Stream is primarily driven by the thick, heavy salt water that sinks along Greenland’s coast. If this water is diluted by enough fresh water, the current could weaken, which would disrupt ocean circulation worldwide.

The week in wildlife – in pictures

World Politics

United States

As the GOP counter-offensive runs on fake news and conspiracy theories, critics say truth itself is under attack

Donald Trump gestures as he speaks at a campaign rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Donald Trump gestures as he speaks at a campaign rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four,” George Orwell wrote in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. “If that is granted, all else follows.”

The pro-Donald Trump industrial complex has not yet denied basic arithmetic. But as impeachment looms, his allies appear to be waging an increasingly frantic political and media counter-offensive that puts truth itself in the dock.

A bewildering array of fake news, warped facts and conspiracy theories have been propagated in the past week by conservative media, Republican politicians, White House officials and the president in his own defence. It is, commentators say, a concerted disinformation war, intended to crowd out damaging revelations as the House of Representatives prepares its ultimate sanction.

“The more facts come out, the more desperate they get,” said Kurt Bardella, a former spokesman and senior adviser on the House oversight committee. “They know in a debate centred on facts, truth and reality, they lose. Their only mechanism to survive is to muddy the waters, distort, distract and hope if they repeat lies often enough, they become real.”

Trump this week became the only fourth US president to face articles of impeachment. The two against him charge him with abuse of power by pressuring Ukraine to announce investigations that would boost his 2020 re-election campaign, and obstruction of Congress by ordering witnesses to defy subpoenas.

These guys are in an abusive relationship with Trump … They behave the way you see victims of domestic violence behave

Rick Wilson

At public hearings and in countless media interviews, Republicans sought to argue that Trump was, in fact, justified in seeking the two investigations: one into whether Ukraine meddled in the 2016 the presidential election, the other into a Ukrainian gas company with ties to Hunter Biden, the son of potential 2020 rival Joe Biden.

Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, even flew to Ukraine with the ardently pro-Trump One America News Network (OANN) to interview officials for a “docu-series”. The Wall Street Journal reported that when Giuliani got back to New York last week, the president called him on the runway and demanded: “What did you get?”

The former New York mayor reportedly replied: “More than you can imagine.”

Giuliani visited Trump at the White House on Friday.

The entire US intelligence community has found no evidence to support the claim of Ukrainian interference in 2016. Fiona Hill, formerly top Russia expert at the White House, has warned that to spread “the fictional narrative” is to spread Russian propaganda and do the bidding of Vladimir Putin. Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, said this week there was “no indication” that Ukraine interfered.

Yet several Republican senators continue to peddle this counter-narrative. Last Sunday Ted Cruz, runner-up to Trump in the 2016 primary, told NBC’s Meet the Press: “Ukraine blatantly interfered in our election.”

Host Chuck Todd’s eyebrows shot up with surprise.

“Senator, this sort of strikes me as odd,” he said, noting how Trump viciously went after Cruz during the primary campaign, questioning his birthplace and religion and insulting his wife.

But Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist and author of Everything Trump Touches Dies, said: “I’m not surprised at Ted Cruz being sycophantic to Trump. Trump broke Ted Cruz a long time ago. The Republicans have the worst political Stockholm syndrome we’ve ever seen.

“These guys are all in an abusive relationship with Trump. I don’t mean that in a flippant way. They behave the way you see victims of domestic violence behave. But they’ve got culpability in this thing: they’re not just victims, they’re enablers.”

Wilson noted there is no punishment for Trump’s allies.

“There are no consequences for being untruthful. It’s become a feature, not a bug. The audience expects them to lie. There’s a certain liberty in not having a conscience and being able to lie about anything and watch Trump blow stuff up. Trump revels in paying the joker and they revel in him playing that role.”

Republicans have also worked hard to justify Trump’s demand for an investigation into Biden. All week they continued to push for Hunter to appear as a witness, even though there is no evidence of wrongdoing on his part. On Thursday, Matt Gaetz of Florida presented an amendment to the impeachment articles that would replace a reference to investigations into Joe Biden with “the true topic of the investigation, Burisma and Hunter Biden”.

If Fox News did not exist, the Republican embrace of wild conspiracy theories would not be tenable or possible

Kurt Bardella

Another Republican defence hinges on political tribalism. Full of righteous indignation, they claim Democrats had been plotting to impeach Trump all along and so the inquiry is a “sham”. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the House judiciary committee, said Democrats “can’t get over the fact Donald Trump is president of the United States and they don’t have a candidate that they think can beat him”.

‘It is incredible’

The impeachment inquiry is not the only glimpse into Trump and his allies’ parallel universe. This week saw the release of a justice department inspector general report that debunked the conspiracy theory that the investigation into Trump’s 2016 campaign and its ties to Russia originated with political bias. The report quoted the FBI deputy general counsel as saying: “The FBI would have been derelict in our responsibility had we not opened the case.”

Trump’s long-held contention that the Russia investigation was a hoax and witch-hunt was demolished before his eyes. Yet his first response from the White House came from a parallel universe in which up is down and two plus two equals five.

“The IG report just came out, and I was just briefed on it, and it’s a disgrace what’s happened with respect to the things that were done to our country,” he told reporters.

“It should never again happen to another president. It is incredible. Far worse than I would have ever thought possible. And it’s an embarrassment to our country. It’s dishonest. It’s everything that a lot of people thought it would be, except far worse.”

Trump turned to Pam Bondi, a special adviser on impeachment and former Florida attorney general to whom he once donated. Like Cruz, she did not disappoint.

“You know, so many of us who are career law enforcement today are outraged,” she said. “And I think the American people really should be terrified that this could happen to you when we’re supposed to live in a society of integrity and honesty.”

Sometimes, Trump just makes stuff up. At a campaign rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania, he made the baseless allegation that the former FBI agent Peter Strzok needed a restraining order against ex-colleague Lisa Page when their affair ended. The couple’s anti-Trump text messages are a favourite Republican talking point.

A member of the audience holds up a sticker as Donald Trump speaks in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

A member of the audience holds up a sticker as Donald Trump speaks in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Photograph: Tom Brenner/Reuters

“This poor guy, did I hear he needed a restraining order after this whole thing, to keep him away from Lisa?” Trump asked the crowd. “I don’t know if it’s true, the fake news will never report it, but it could be true.”

Page tweeted: “This is a lie. Nothing like this ever happened. I wish we had a president who knew how to act like one. SAD!”

‘The attorney general is a Fox News bot’

The president has found another useful enabler in Bill Barr, the attorney general, who joined him in dismissing most of the inspector general’s findings and promising that his handpicked prosecutor, John Durham, will have the final word.

Jeffrey Toobin, a lawyer and legal analyst, told CNN: “The attorney general of the United States is a Fox News bot. And it’s an outrage. [Barr] keeps demanding investigation after investigation until he gets the results that he wants? That’s something that happens in the Soviet Union, not in the United States.”

Trump has far more tools at his disposal than Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton did when facing impeachment in the 1970s and 90s. No matter how outlandish, his assertions are amplified and seldom questioned by loyal hosts on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News network.

Bardella said: “If Fox News did not exist, the Republican embrace of wild conspiracy theories would not be tenable or possible. They are the editorial centre of the Republican party now.”

This is further augmented by social media. Under the headline “Fact-based impeachment can’t penetrate the pro-Trump Web”, the Washington Post highlighted how Friday’s impeachment hearing was watched by a private Facebook group with more than 75,000 members under the banner “The Trump deplorables”.

It reported: “The defense mounted by Trump’s allies made perfect sense to those following live on social media, in groups sealed off from general scrutiny, where facts are established by volume, and confirmation comes from likes. The effect of social media is to jack up the tenor of everything.”

This calibrated, multi-pronged Republican assault has left the nation in what some call a state of “truth decay” as all sense of shared reality breaks down. The tactics offer a chilling preview of how the president intends to fight next year’s election.

Bardella said: “We have one chance to return to a certain amount of normality and respect. Much more than Donald Trump is on the ballot, fact and truth and our democratic way of life are on the ballot.”

Democrat Jeff Van Drew met Trump and will switch parties, sources say

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