Climate breakdown is a profound threat to humanity
To use the words of Investec Asset Management, ‘the climate challenge is an existential threat’ to humanity. (It is also a massive potential opportunity – so read down to find out more about that.)
- This New York Magazine article ‘The Uninhabitable Earth‘ outlines some of the worst possible likely effects of climate change (what could happen IF we don’t change course). The article was extremely controversial when published, not least amongst climate scientists themselves. However, on close scrutiny, it seems most of the controversy lay not in the facts themselves, but on whether this kind of article is an ‘effective’ way to communicate the dangers of climate change to the public. And it seems climate scientists themselves, who all too often work in narrow and rather specialised silos, were rather alarmed and scared by seeing the whole picture consolidated in a single article.
- New York Times – ‘Short Answers to Hard Questions About Climate Change’: Longer term, if emissions continue to rise unchecked, the risks are profound. Scientists fear climate effects so severe that they might destabilize governments, produce waves of refugees, precipitate the sixth mass extinction of plants and animals in Earth’s history, and melt the polar ice caps, causing the seas to rise high enough to flood most of the world’s coastal cities. All of this could take hundreds or even thousands of years to play out, conceivably providing a cushion of time for civilization to adjust, but experts cannot rule out abrupt changes, such as a collapse of agriculture, that would throw society into chaos much sooner. Bolder efforts to limit emissions would reduce these risks, or at least slow the effects, but it is already too late to eliminate the risks entirely.
- Ten global impacts from climate change in 2016
- Carbon Brief: ‘Analysis: Just four years left of the 1.5C carbon budget’: ‘Four years of current emissions would be enough to blow what’s left of the carbon budget for a good chance of keeping global temperature rise to 1.5C.’
Government actions to curtail climate change remain inadequate.
- While the world has decided via the Paris climate agreement to try to limit average global warming by 2100 to 1.5C, the unambitious targets set so far collectively put us on a global emissions trajectory of 3C-4C by 2100. If the whole world emitted at the rate South Africa does, we will definitely hit 3–4C.
- Climate Action Tracker: Major challenges ahead for Paris Agreement to meet its 1.5 deg warming limit
- 8 Things You Need to Know About the IPCC 1.5˚C Report
If fossil fuel companies burn all their reserves of oil, gas and coal, we will far exceed ‘safe’ limits to global warming
- Carbon Tracker analysis: “Only 20% of the total [global] reserves can be burned unabated, leaving up to 80% of assets technically unburnable… Already in 2011, the world has used over a third of its 50-year carbon budget of 886GtCO2, leaving 565GtCO2. All of the proven reserves owned by private and public companies and governments are equivalent to 2,795 GtCO2. Fossil fuel reserves owned by the top 100 listed coal and top 100 listed oil and gas companies represent total emissions of 745GtCO2. Only 20% of the total reserves can be burned unabated, leaving up to 80% of assets technically unburnable.
But fossil fuel companies continue to block change
- An in-depth analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) of eight leading fossil fuel companies found significant variations in how they are addressing global warming, but none has made a clean break from disinformation on climate science and policy. Likewise, none is adequately planning for a world free from carbon pollution, as laid out by the international climate agreement expected to take effect this year.
Despite this, remarkable change is already sweeping through the global energy sector
- The UK’s CO2 emissions fell by 5.8% in 2016, after a record 52% drop in coal use.
- China coal consumption falls for third year running
- Bloomberg: Clean Energy Isn’t Just the Future—It’s the Present: “Renewables provided 55 percent of all new electrical capacity worldwide last year, the most ever. In some regions, solar is the cheapest source of power, and it will only get cheaper. Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates that a watt of power from ground-mounted solar will drop a further 36 percent by 2025. Solar’s appeal isn’t just one of cost; it’s the most democratized and decentralized power source.”
- Bloomberg: With More Bang for the Buck, Renewables Providing Most New Power
While long-term value in the fossil fuel sector appears to be gravely threatened
- The Wall Street Journal: The world’s biggest oil companies are struggling just to break even. Despite billions of dollars in spending cuts and a modest oil-price rebound, Exxon Mobil Corp., Royal Dutch Shell PLC, Chevron Corp. and BP PLC didn’t make enough money in 2016 to cover their costs, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis.
- International Energy Agency warns $1.3 trillion of oil and gas could be left stranded (by 2050)
The international fossil fuel divestment movement continues to grow
• Comprehensive list of divestment commitments: Total value of institutions divesting now $5.45 trillion and 719 institutions globally, including Ireland (national strategic investment fund), the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund; the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; the cities of Berlin, Copenhagen, Melbourne, Paris, San Francisco, Seattle, Stockholm, and Sydney.
The fossil fuel sector has a great many negative impacts besides climate change
- Mpumalanga Environmental Crisis: Why is nobody listening?
- Elephant-sized mining plans threaten to bring environmental stress to Limpopo Valley
- Centre for Environmental Rights: Mining programme
- Impacts of the fossil fuel and related industries on communities in South Durban
- GroundWork report on the destruction of the Highveld by the mining industry
- Massive health impacts and costs of air pollution in South Africa: over 2000 deaths, and R33bn.
- Mail & Guardian: Toxic legacy of SA’s abandoned coal mines
So eliminating fossil fuels is also a massive opportunity to reduce other problems: war, resource conflicts and price instability, air pollution, corruption, noise, land degradation.
There is a Buddhist saying that, “Those who spend too long in a privy [toilet] soon forget the smell.” We’ve lived for so long now with the “stench” of fossil fuels that we’ve become too accustomed to their many costs. Yes, fossil fuels have helped secure an extraordinary level of human prosperity – but the liabilities column is stacking up fast and threatens to overwhelm the progress they’ve helped us realise. Fossil fuels have brought some prosperity – but also massive ecological degradation, wars, corruption, air pollution, death, noise, dangerous jobs, health problems and premature deaths. Happily, there are now many viable alternatives in the realms of energy, agriculture and resource use – which we can’t adopt too quickly.
Running the world on renewable energy will cost less than running it on fossil fuels
Beyond divestment: The ‘Green New Deal’
We’re living in very challenging times – fraught with danger, but also abundant with opportunity, and this political challenge has now been formalised in what US progressives are calling “the Green New Deal”: the idea that serious action to deal with the climate crisis is also an opportunity to rebuild economies from the ground up with more secure infrastructure, higher levels of employment (and better quality jobs), and much greater equality.
Some key links:
The Intercept: A Message From the Future With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” a seven-minute film narrated by the congresswoman and illustrated by Molly Crabapple, outlining one vision of how the Green New Deal could unfold
A European New Deal: While Americans fight over what the Green New Deal could be, the Diem 25 pan-European progressive political movement has quietly put together an excellent outline.
Frequently asked questions about divestment
- 350.org’s divestment FAQ
- Harvard University faculty campaign for divestment FAQ
- Stanford University divestment campaign FAQ
Do the Math – the movie that started it all: