Bonn talks underway; scientists see grim future for climate

Nov. 2017 Germany coal

Nov. 5 protest in Germany’s coalfields.

By MICHAEL SCHREIBER

At the same time that Donald Trump was gallivanting around Asia, with objectives that included arming Japan with U.S. missiles and cajoling China into the plan to isolate North Korea, other heads of state were in Bonn, Germany, for the 23rd annual “Conference of the Parties” (COP23) UN-sponsored climate talks. The two weeks of discussions, Nov. 6-17, were aimed at negotiating ways to implement the goals of the 2015 Paris Climate Accord.

As the conference opened, the World Meteorological Organization released data showing that 2017 is apparently the hottest non-Niño year on record, and is expected to join the two previous years as the three hottest in modern history.

Several days earlier, scientists with the U.S. Global Change Research Program published a report with similar conclusions. They affirmed from “thousands” of scientific studies that human activity is likely to be the cause of the steady increase in global temperatures. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere (over 400 ppm) is at a concentration unsurpassed in the last three million years, when global temperatures and sea level were significantly higher than today—and the concentration is still rising.

The report presented a grim prognosis for the future, in which the Atlantic coast of the United States could be swamped by rising seas and regularly battered by heavy storms. The report predicted heat waves becoming common, an increase in forest fires in the American West, and drastically reduced water resources with possible chronic drought in the United States by the end of the 21st century. Worldwide sea levels could continue to rise for centuries to come, as the ice sheets and glaciers melt.

The chairman of the Bonn conference, Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama, opened the sessions with greetings “from one of the most climate-vulnerable regions on earth” and called on the delegates to “make the Paris Accord work.”

“The need for urgency is obvious,” he said, referring to the tremendous hurricanes, floods, droughts, and forest fires of the last year and more. “Our world is in distress from the extreme weather events caused by climate change.”

It musn’t be overlooked, however, that the goals agreed to in Paris were far from sufficient to keep rising temperatures from reaching even more catastrophic levels. Even if the current pledges for cuts in carbon emissions were attained, they would still mean at least 3C of global warming above pre-industrial levels—which would likely result in rising seas that inundate island and coastal areas, widespread drought and crop failures, famine and mass migrations, tremendous loss of species, and countless other tragic and unchecked consequences.

The Bonn conference is entrusted with creating a mechanism to achieve the objectives of the Paris Accord, while leaving space for those goals to be raised higher. But success, even on limited terms, is not assured. On the first day of the conference, less developed countries, led by India, questioned whether the wealthier countries could be trusted, since they had failed to meet many of their pledges to reduce carbon emissions made at earlier COPs.

And in turn, some wealthier and more developed countries have been complaining of initiatives requiring them to contribute $100 billion a year to help poorer nations deal with the effects of climate change. Since Trump announced that the U.S. is pulling out of the Climate Accord, it is not clear whether the U.S. will contribute at all to the fund for poorer nations.

The United States, the world’s second largest polluter, sent an official delegation to the talks, although their agenda seemed ridiculously out of sync with the professed goals of the conference. The U.S. said that it planned to use the venue to promote American energy resources, particularly fossil fuels, as a way that poorer countries could meet their energy needs.

The U.S. presentation was called “The Role of Cleaner and More Efficient Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power in Climate Mitigation.” Speakers from Peabody Energy, a coal company; NuScale Power, and nuclear engineering firm; and Tellurian, a liquefied natural gas exporter, were on the program.

Plans by the Trump administration, and other world leaders, to sell more fossil fuels on the world market were given a loud rebuke by German climate activists. Just a day before the opening of the COP23 conference, about 4500 protesters, some holding signs reading “system change, not climate change,” gathered in the Rhineland coalfields in Germany.

“Germany’s lignite mines are among the biggest coal mines in the world,” Zane Sikulu, a Climate Warrior from Tonga, said in a statement. “If we don’t shut them down, we have no chance as Pacific Islanders. We’re here to protect our land, our culture, and our identities as Pacific people.”

Janna Aljets, a spokesperson for the environmental alliance Ende Gelände, which helped organize the action, said in a statement: “On the international stage, politicians and corporations present themselves as climate saviors, while a few miles away, the climate is literally being burned,”

“Fossil fuels must stay in the ground,” Aljets added. “We are here at the scene of destruction to send out a clear signal for climate justice.”