A searing heatwave has swept over western and southern Europe, and even in the USA. In France, temperatures were the highest on record, reaching 45.9℃, nearly two degrees above the previous record set in 2003, resulting in 15,000 deaths. Some 4000 schools were closed in France because of the heat, and authorities warned people to take special precautions for the elderly and the very young. In Germany, June temperatures were four degrees higher than historic averages for the month. Spain also endured record heat of up to 44℃, and battled large wildfires.
The World Meteorological Organisation in Geneva considered 2019 likely to be one of the hottest years on record, and that the period 2015-2019 would then be the hottest five-year period.
Everywhere, climate scientists and the general public are clamouring for governments to tackle global warming urgently. Bertrand Badré, former Managing Director of the World Bank, finds the limited progress with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the threat of climate change ‘extremely frightening’, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warning that global warming above 1.5℃ ‘will be devastating for billions of people’.
The Nobel laureate and economist, Joseph Stiglitz, warned that ‘climate change is our World War III’. Our lives and civilisation are ‘at stake’. He said the USA bears heavy costs for ignoring climate change. Weather disasters, floods, hurricanes, and forest fires would cost 2 per cent of GDP, plus $billions more in avoidable health care. He urged cutting subsidies of tens of billions of dollars to fossil fuel industries, and transitioning to renewable energy.
Global subsidies to fossil fuels in 2017 grow to $5.2 trillion, 6.5% of combined global GDP, according to research commissioned by the International Monetary Fund. It estimated subsidies in China at $1.4 trillion, in the USA at $649 billion, in Russia at $551 billion, and in the European Union at $289 billion. Coal received 44% of global subsidies, oil 41%, and gas 10%. Annual subsidies in Australia amounted to $29 billion, or 2.3 per cent of Australian GDP, 1,198 per person.
Professor Jeffrey Sachs from Columbia University adds ‘the United States has entered its worst drought in modern times’, with more than half the country under drought emergency. Given the frequency of extreme global weather events, we have ‘entered a new and very dangerous era’.
UN Secretary-General calls for an end to fossil fuels
‘We need to tax pollution, not people’, and ‘end subsidies for fossil fuels’, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the World Summit at the R20 Austria World Summit on 28 May. He urged a halt to coal plants, but increased finance for green ventures and low-carbon solutions.
Speaking on 28 June during the G20 Summit in Osaka, Guterres warned that all the evidence was showing that the climate change situation is worse than forecast, while political will to redress it was falling. The IPCC Report in October stressed that temperatures by 2100 must not exceed 1.5℃ over pre-industrial levels. This required the world to become carbon neutral by 2050.
Guterres intends to make a major appeal to world leaders at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York in September to put a price on carbon, end subsidies to fossil fuel, and refuse to open new coal power plants. He insisted these measures are ‘absolutely essential to rescue the planet’.
He also warned that the world was lagging behind fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals, and pointed out that 80 per cent of climate emissions came from G20 countries.
Australian religious leaders appeal to PM for climate action
In Australia, there is overwhelming support for climate action, and dismay about the continuing policy failures in Canberra, capped off by the recent approval for the Adani mine in Queensland.
In a remarkable inter-faith statement on 25 June, more than 150 leaders from Anglican, Uniting, Catholic, Quaker, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and other traditions wrote to Prime Minister Morrison, urging him to make reversing climate change his ‘number one priority’ in this ‘emergency’. They noted that the IPCC warned that use of thermal coal ‘must drop by at least 59% in the next 11 years’ to avoid 1.5℃ warming. As the world’s largest coal exporter, Australia had a heavy moral responsibility to stop opening coal mines or gas deposits ‘to avoid catastrophe’. The letter urged moving Australia to 100% renewable energy by 2030.
Not only in Australia are religious leaders speaking with one voice. Representatives of other world religions echoed Pope Francis’s encyclical of May 2015, Laudato Si’, warning of the looming ‘disaster’ of climate change. A symposium in Istanbul in August 2015 issued The Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change’, followed by a Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change, with further statements by Jewish, Hindu, and other religious groups.
Pope Francis & world religious leaders on climate change
Francis has reiterated the concerns expressed in Laudato Si’ on hundreds of occasions, when meeting political and other leaders, or speaking at public events. Francis links climate change closely to the issues summarised in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), dealing with hunger, poverty, growing inequality, the environment, universal education, gender equity, healthcare, and so on. But he knows that, unless we address climate change, it will undermine all 17 Goals of the SDGs.
Pope Francis is constantly campaigning for action on these global issues. For instance, in an address to the President of the UN General Assembly and finance ministers from various nations on 27 May 2019, he urged them ‘to help prevent a crisis that is leading the world towards disaster’. Investments in fossil fuels were still increasing, ‘even though scientists tell us that fossil fuels should remain underground’. He said the ‘ledger of life itself, of human dignity and survival’ was at stake.
Again, at a two-day conference in June 2019 with leading executives from the energy sectors, including the CEOs of Exxon, Mobil, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Total, Chevron and Eni, plus Black Rock, BNP Paribas, and Hermes Investment, Francis appealed to them to apply their expertise to averting ‘a climate emergency’. He noted that the IPCC warned that ‘effects on the climate will be catastrophic if we cross the threshold of 1.5℃’ of warming. Francis encouraged the energy executives to ensure a just transition to a low-carbon economy, while protecting jobs and living standards, as well as reducing inequality. He endorsed carbon pricing as ‘essential’ if humanity is to use resources wisely.
In response the meeting agreed to increase investment in sustainable energy, and introduce new carbon pricing mechanisms, even carbon taxes. But different views in the group meant they did not endorse the Pope’s call for a 1.5℃ cap on temperature rise, and instead aimed to keep global warming below 2℃.
What Australia needs to do
The IPCC has warned that temperatures will rise by 3 to 4 degrees Celsius within 80 years, dramatically altering climate, melting much of the great ice sheets, increasing sea levels by 2 to 5 meters, flooding low-lying areas with their megacities and great river deltas, displacing populations, and damaging food production, with cascading effects through the earth’s life support systems.
Australia’s emissions fell by 11% from 2005 to 2013, but have been climbing since then. To reduce net emissions to zero by 2050, Australia would need to cut emissions by 55% below the levels of 2030, compared to the Coalition government’s target of 26-28% or the 45% cut proposed by federal Labor. But it is doable, according to Anna Skarbek in The Conversation. Fortunately, in the view of Salim Mazouz and Frank Jotzo, Australia has preferable options to export energy in ‘the form of hydrogen, ammonia, and other fuels, using wind and solar power’.
Nevertheless, Australia is currently the biggest coal exporter, supplying 37 percent of global coal markets which are adding huge amounts of greenhouse gases. Australia is also the largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) which further increases greenhouse emissions.
The prominent British economist, Adair Turner, urges strong intervention to avoid a ‘climate catastrophe’: ‘Zero net CO2 emissions by 2050 at the latest should be the legally defined objective in all developed economies’. He writes that a free market solution is still possible with government support, and falling renewable energy costs forcing investors out of coal, oil and gas. The UK’s Climate Change Act at present demands emissions reductions of 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, and by 2017 they were down by 40%.
If Britain can make such significant cuts to its emissions, so can Australia, but it needs the political will and appropriate regulation, as shown by the Victorian government, which is leading the way.