Rivers vanishing into thin air; melting icebergs; large-scale coral reef bleaching – we’ve all seen the images and videos in our newsfeeds. These instances are the shocking, visual proof of what climate change scientists have been telling us for years: we’re killing our planet; just two 2 °C more and humans are likely as good as dead.
There’s could be no worse time, then, to have a global warming truther running the White House. America’s newest POTUS, backed by a cherry-picked cabinet of fossil fuel millionaires, has used his first 100 days in office to roll back Obama-era regulations on offshore drilling, dismantle the Clean Power Plan, shred vital coal regulations, put a climate change denier in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency and now – to the horror of many – has pulled out of the Paris Agreement.
Even prior to this latest announcement, environmentalists have been showing their dismay, such as with a headline-grabbing protest at Trump Tower in NYC on May 8th. A week before that, an estimated 300,000 people – many working in STEM industries – braved 91°F heat to march on DC as part of the People’s Climate Movement. “Things have gotten so bad,” one placard read, “that even introverts have to protest”. Trump chose that afternoon to fly to the heart of coal country, snubbing the White House Correspondents Dinner for a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
So, how important is the US’s increasingly non-co-operative stance on climate change to global emission-reducing efforts? Do we need the Trump administration on-board, or can we make earth-saving strides without them?
“The alliance between US and China under the Obama administration played a key role in securing the climate agreement,” explains Greenpeace’s Head of News, Stefano Gelmini, speaking before yesterday’s shock announcement.
“If Trump decides to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement, that will no doubt slow down global efforts to tackle climate change – but it won’t stop them. A growing number of countries are realising the obvious benefits of developing clean energy sources, which are safe, easy to deploy and getting cheaper every year.”
The case for renewables is sound, backed by sound scientific fact. But as we’ve learned, Trump is a “post-truth” businessman, a president who’ll ruthlessly target data that might impede his agenda. In a nutshell: he truly sucks when it comes to action on climate change. But are the rest of us any better?
The UK’s backyard emissions crisis
The UK has enjoyed some encouraging breakthroughs in recent months, including our first coal-free day – on April 21st – since the Industrial Revolution, thanks to alternative sources such as gas, nuclear, wind and solar. The preceding month, the National Grid reported that the UK had broken solar energy records, producing six times more electricity via the photovoltaic network than through the country’s coal-fired power stations.
With Britain’s last coal power station set to shut in 2025, these are encouraging milestones. “Photovoltaics are already the cheapest source of electricity in many countries,” Gelmini points out, “while power towers using mirrors to concentrate solar energy to produce thermal power can now supply electricity 24 hours a day.”
But is the switch from dirty fuel to renewables happening fast enough to honour our international commitments? Worryingly not, says WWF’s Gareth Redmond-King. “We haven’t made anything like the same progress on decarbonising buildings and transport. Whoever forms the next government after the general election, they must prioritise a plan for reducing emissions from all sectors.”
Whoever forms the next government after the general election, they must prioritise a plan for reducing emissions from all sectors
Honouring our commitments to the rest of world look doubtful when we fail to address the crises in our backyard. The government’s own data shows that UK air pollution causes 40,000-50,000 early deaths a years, a quagmire that MPs have called a “pubic health emergency”. After repeatedly refusing to address the issue, the Conservative government is now facing a class action lawsuit from asthma sufferers. Its not so much troubleshooting solutions that we’re lacking – mooted fixes include retro-fitting highly polluting public transport vehicles, introducing diesel vehicle charges and adapting traffic lights at particularly smoggy junctions to work as emission-mufflers – but state responsibility.
Current PM Theresa May gave climate change a single cursory mention in her 2016 party address; in April, she oversaw the sale of our Green Investment Bank for £2.3bn in a move roundly denounced by critics. “If the government picks up its pace, the UK could be a world leader in renewable and green technology,” Greenpeace’s policy director, Doug Parr, told The Guardian. “But selling a great British success story, which levered private money into eco-projects, to a controversial Australian bank [Macquarie] known for asset-stripping, is a disaster.”
European hopes for climate change action
Things look far more hopeful across the pond, in France, where the newly elected Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron has come out as a passionate, vocal advocate for climate change action.
Macron used a recent video to recruit America’s increasingly persecuted “researchers, entrepreneurs, engineers” to France, where he promised they would be welcomed by their French and European peers. “Please, come to France, you are welcome [here]… we like innovation. We want innovative people. We want people working on climate change, energy, renewables and new technologies.”
If we are truly to meet our obligations under the Paris Agreement, we will need to see a much faster growth of renewables and much faster reduction of fossil fuels
Macron hopes to build on the gains made by the EU in recent years. As a recent study by the European Environment Agency (EEA) has revealed, renewables – wind and solar, in particular – helped to cut Europe’s carbon emissions by 10% in 2015. It’s a promising, if patchily applied, number. Scandinavian countries, for example, rely on renewables for 30% of the power, while countries like Malta use it for just 5% of their energy needs.
Mihai Tomescu, who authored the EEA study, summarised the findings by explaining that while the renewable roll-out is picking up speed, it’s not happening fast enough to avert the ecocide we’re on course for. “The current level of effort needs to be stepped up and this is not necessarily going to happen without additional focus,” he told the Guardian.
It’s a warning echoed by James Watson, the chief executive of SolarPower Europe. “This is a good start and we must be positive about that but if we are truly to meet our obligations under the Paris Agreement, we will need to see a much faster growth of renewables and a commensurate, much faster reduction of fossil fuels, and coal power in particular.”
Trump contrast? Concerns for Canada while China shines
In Canada, Justin Trudeau promised an administration with a strong commitment to the Paris Agreement. But since coming to power in 2015, the prime minister has approved not just one but two oil pipelines, and one of Canada’s largest carbon dioxide-emitting liquefied natural gas projects, a move that “virtually [ensures] that Canada will not meet its own climate targets,” says award-winning scientist and broadcaster David Suzuki.
Despite this, like many environmentalists, Suzuki is not without hope. “Nature has the ability to continue to shock us. If we pull back and give nature room to recover, it may surprise us.”
China, a country increasingly pushing to the fore in terms of eco responsibility, are a growing cause for hope. “They’re one of the big reasons for optimism,” says Gelmini.
“China are the biggest emitter and still heavily dependent on coal, but as well as being a vocal advocate they also appear to be walking the walk, installing two wind turbines and three football pitches worth of solar panels every hour, while cancelling many of their planned coal plants. This commitment, as well as their vast economic power, means that the world listens to them.”
Money talks: the economic resistance to climate change action
The world may listen, but it’s money that talks, as the Asset Owner Disclosure Project’s most recent global index has revealed. For the first time, its the majority rather than the minority of global investor heavyweights who recognise the financial risks of climate change, with 60% of the world’s largest 500 asset owners now factoring the financial risks associated with climate change into their investments.
That’s not say there isn’t still “enormous resistance” among asset owners in countries like Australia to heed/invest in climate conscious projects, e according to AODP’s chairman John Hewson. That’s because managers tend to “take a very short-term focus, and rely on short-term remuneration, so they won’t take a medium to long-term challenge on easily”. It’s a dilemma exacerbated by governments downplaying the need to transition to renewables, says Hewson. “It’s not conducive to a serious assessment of risk, that’s for sure.”
And yet the continent is making real strides under premier Jay Weatherill, with a $150m renewable technology fund and the construction of a $1bn solar farm and the world’s biggest battery set to begin at the tailend of 2017.
Investors won’t always follow government policy robotically, AODP’s CEO, Julian Poulter, tells us. “As our report shows, climate change has eaten into the herd mentality that dominates finance – the leading funds have rejected the way that short term markets view climate risk and are doing very different things to the laggards; there has never been a bigger split in finance.”
This is the split that will ultimately prove the difference between a renewables-powered future and ecocide. As the one percenters are finally realising, short-term gains on a dying planet are increasingly valueless. We can’t drink oil, or eat money. An eco-responsible future is still possible – but speed, the data tells us, is everything.