Fires along the Rio Xingu, Brazil. Photo Credit: NASA’s Earth Observatory.
“We are at the crossroads now: We either say: this thing is too big for us, this task cannot be done. [Then] we will be transformed by nature, because we will end up with a planet warming by 4, 5, 6 or even 12 degrees. It would be the end of the world as we know it, and I have all the evidence. Or we say: We’re doing the transformation ourselves.” — Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, climate scientist, Postdam Institute.
The Global Threat
One of the many facets of humanity threatened by climate change is language itself, our ability to construct narrative to make sense of the world around us. How does a collection of words capture what confounds the limits of human imagination? How do you thread together a story about the unweaving of life?
These are questions we struggle to answer every day, but the bitter, impossibly incomplete summary we have right now is:
We are killing each other. We are extinguishing the conditions necessary for the dignified survival of the human species.
The changes being unleashed, as well as the changes we are failing to make — the blind spots we are continuing to hold — are relegating lands and lives to the abyss.
This month has brought into better clarity the incomprehensible numeracy of the scars we are carving into the planet. The rates of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are close to breaching the 410 ppm threshold. The last time levels were this high was the Pliocene Epoch, 3 million years ago. This matters because during the Pliocene, sea levels were between 15–25 meters higher than today. The last time atmospheric carbon dioxide was consistently above 400 ppm was 16 million years ago during the Miocene, or about 25 million years ago during the early Oligocene, when the Earth was unrecognisable compared to anything homo sapiens have ever experienced.
The Arctic today has record low ice levels: in late winter it has about as much ice as it had midsummer 35 years ago. This is deeply worrying, as previous research has shown that Arctic ice melt could catalyze uncontrollable climate change.
New research has lent further weight to the claim that global warming is going to alter the jet stream, making it weaker and more prolonged — the result of which is that weather patterns may persist for longer, driving extreme droughts, heat waves, and storms. In fact, analysis shows that a “human fingerprint” can now be found over nearly all extreme weather events.
“Psychologically, in the last few years, there’s a lot of anxiety that I don’t remember having 10 years ago. In the last three or four years, there’s this tremendous anxiety around the weather because windows of time for quality crop growth are very narrow.”
The World Meteorological Organisation’s State of the Climate report for 2016 shows a planet heading into “truly uncharted territory”, defined by tumbling temperature records, heatwaves, and glacial melting. Jeffrey Kargel, a glaciologist at the University of Arizona commented:
“Earth is a planet in upheaval due to human-caused changes in the atmosphere. In general, drastically changing conditions do not help civilisation, which thrives on stability.”
Ensuring that stability will be no easy feat. Scientists have come up with a daunting roadmap for meeting the Paris Agreement goals, and achieving decarbonisation by 2050: global CO2 emissions will need to halve every decade. Net emissions from land use (agriculture, forestry) will have to dive to zero. Carbon dioxide removal technologies — those that suck carbon from the atmosphere — will need to scale up massively to the extent that they will have to pull 5 gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere (double what soil and trees do already).
We are nowhere near this level of action; instead, we’re seeing the highest rates of CO2 growth on record.
The human and non-human cost of all this is harrowing.
Species in every ecosystem are being affected by increasing temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns. Marine animals are moving towards the poles at the average rate of 72 kilometres a decade.
A new study has shown that India’s dwindling groundwater is tied to variable monsoon precipitation, linked to climate change. The result has been the worst drought in a century across Southern India, where dozens of farmers have committed suicide following crop losses and financial difficulties in wake of the drought, and communities have been forced to eat rats due to food shortages.
Bleached coral off the eastern coast of Australia. Photo credit: Acropora.
Another new study shows oceans warming 13% faster than previously thought. Large swathes of the Great Barrier Reef — the world’s largest living organism — are now dead. Professor Terry Hughes, a specialist in coral reef studies, said that “we didn’t expect to see this level of destruction to the Great Barrier Reef for another 30 years.” Australian journalist Crispin Hull, a frequenter of the coral reefs of Eastern Australia, recently the Great Reef. As he looked at the bleached coral, tears clouded his diving mask. Crispin noted:
“This is not a crime against humanity. This is a crime by humanity. We have sentenced to death the largest living structure on the planet: the Great Barrier Reef. The sentence is being carried out slowly and painfully before our eyes.”
To make matters even worse, the reef was further devastated by a powerful cyclone, which turned parts of the reef into an “underwater wasteland”.
New data is sharpening scientific fears that the Middle East and North Africa risks becoming uninhabitable in a few decades, as the availability of fresh water has fallen by two-thirds over the past 40 years. This research comes as evidence signals that nutrition and food security levels in the region have deteriorated sharply over the last six years.
Parched, dessicated soil in the wake of drought. Photo Credit: Creative Commons.
In Zimbabwe, floods have caused a spike in malaria cases. In Russia, scientists have identified 7000 large gas bubbles across the Yamal and Gydan peninsulas that are about to explode. The air already emanating from these bubbles includes 20 times more carbon dioxide and 200 times more methane than nearby air. This phenomenon is being linked to climate change, as permafrost across Siberia is rapidly melting, releasing a build-up of methane and greenhouse gases.
In Brazil, five years after the country adopted a new Forest Code, deforestation is now 60% higher. The Amazon is facing a vicious cycle of drought and forest loss, with irreparable damage being wrought by deforestation in Paraguay’s Chaco region, yet the Brazilian government is continuing to hand it over to mining and agribusiness. Other governments maintain this suicidal ideology as well, with the Australian government changing Native Title law to make it easier for mining companies to secure access to land.
In the US, Trump’s effort to “Make America Dirty Again” continues at full place, as even the minimal climate change regulation introduced by Obama as part of his “legacy” are rapidly being rolled back. However, the Trump administration is not just content with attacking environmental law, it is also attacking the very basis of reality, scrubbing climate science itself from the public domain. Already, 8 major oil and gas projects are in the works in the United States.
While the US’ great rival China may be reducing coal use at home, it is boosting it abroad, kickstarting a new coal boom in Pakistan. Veteran environmentalist William Laurance wrote, “Across the globe, on nearly every continent, China is involved in a dizzying variety of resource extraction, energy, agricultural, and infrastructure projects — roads, railroads, hydropower dams, mines — that are wreaking unprecedented damage to ecosystems and biodiversity. This onslaught will likely be made easier by the Trump administration’s anti-environmental tack and growing disengagement internationally.” Dirty development affects China profoundly, with some of its most precious rivers being polluted to astonishing levels — threatening local livelihoods which depend on tourism.
March was a month of dramatic drought and deluge. Peru and Namibia suffered the worst floods in recent memory. In Peru, more than half the country declared a state of emergency. 100 bridges and 11,000 homes have collapsed, 78 people have died, 20 have disappeared, and 263 are wounded.
The poorest have been the worst hit, with entire slums washed away. These events take place just months after Peru experienced severe drought and record wildfires. Peru’s floods and torrential rains followed spikes of ocean surface temperature off the Peruvian coast earlier in March. The floods afflicting Peru raise alarm bells for the rest of the region.
Water distribution during 2011 Somalian drought. Photo Credit: Oxfam.
On the other side of the world in East Africa, drought continues, with international aid officials saying they are facing one of the biggest humanitarian disasters since World War II. We are now likely to face an unprecedented situation: four simultaneous famines happening in four countries. Countless lives are at stake, with an estimated 20 million people — including 1.4 million children — already suffering from malnutrition. Though famine is a consequence of politics and economics, scientists have in this case identified climate change as partly responsible.
The Bogus Creek Fire burns in Alaska, 2015. Photo Credit: US Department of Agriculture.
Without significant efforts, the drought shows little sign of relenting. Researchers are predicting a 3rd “poor or failed crop growing season for Eastern Kenya and Somalia” for March — May. This poor cropping forecast is linked to reduced rainfall, which in turn is partially driven by sea-surface temperatures in the western Pacific and central Pacific. However, research into climate change impacts in Africa remains stinted by unconscious biases which mean that certain countries are favoured as case studies far more than others in what is known as “the streetlight effect.”
Meanwhile in Asia water politics are near “boiling point”, as prolonged water scarcity increases the risk of cascading conflicts between countries and communities. In Bangladesh, over eight million people are losing access to freshwater as climate change makes rivers too saline for farming. Even Europe is thirsty and parched: 80% of Spain risks becoming a desert this century.
The problem is global: in the Argentine province of Salta temperatures surpassed 40C, fuelling water scarcity and killing 26 people in 23 days. Cape Town is also experiencing tremendous drought. A UNICEF report has warned than 1 in 4 children around the world will face extreme water scarcity by 2040. This scarcity will bring greater environmental vulnerability to children; currently, a fourth of all deaths of children under five are due to environmental risks such as air pollution and unclean water.
Extreme weather has wiped out an enormous Australian mangrove forest stretching over 1000 kilometres. For a rich country like Australia, such weather events are traumatic shocks. For poorer countries, they are crippling: Dominica is still struggling to recover from the effects of Tropical Storm Erika (2015). When the storm hit, the country’s Prime Minister warned that it would take the country’s development back by twenty years.
For some places, even a slow recovery from the impacts of global warming won’t be an option. In Bangladesh, the shrinking Sagar Island in the Sundarbans is struggling to stay afloat. In Costa Rica, some coastal towns are looking at the prospect of being wiped out by sea level rise in the near future. Worldwide, this will lead to a massive displacement and relocation of peoples. Already 1.3 million people have been relocated away from their coastal homes as part of “managed retreat” programmes. This month, the entire community Colombian municpality of Murindó will now have to be relocated after torrential rains.
Victories, Solutions and Hope
In spite of the visceral despair, hope always holds up the horizon. Whether we are talking about the proud resistance struggles of communities around the world, or about people enacting their own solutions, one thing that has to be said is that there are many people around the world who are not going to see it be destroyed without a fight.
For example, community activists in Western Australia have finally won their campaign to stop construction of a road which would have eliminated the Beeliar wetlands sacred to the Noongar people, with the latest state election. On the other side of the country, over a dozen groups have banded together to stop the Adani coal mine, while in the Northern Territory aboriginal peoples are blocking a monster gas pipeline from passing through their lands. A First Nations Renewable Energy Alliance has formed to tackle energy poverty and dirty energy — something which First Nations groups in Canada have also done. The state of Victoria passed a permanent ban on fracking.
In China the government has banned commercial logging in natural forests, and will replace 90% of coal power with clean energy in Hebei province, while in Liberia, citizens are putting pressure on lawmakers to pass a land rights act. In India, the government is aiming for 100% electric vehicles by 2030.
In Europe, eminent universities such as King’s College London and the University of Bristol have agreed to divest from fossil fuels. City leaders such as Stockholm mayor Karin Wanngård are driving forward potent agendas rooted in sustainability. Cities, less beholden to fossil fuel interests, are at the forefront of ambitious climate policies.
European companies are planning to build an “energy island” in the North Sea, that will provide affordable wind power to tens of millions. In Germany, an old coal mine is being converted into a giant storage system for excess solar and wind energy. In Canada, an old hard-rock mine is now British Columbia’s largest solar farm.
From the United States to South Africa to the Netherlands, climate justice battles are increasingly being fought and won in court.
Manipuri women are demanding recognition for their role as peacebuilders and nature protectors. Macedonian groups are resisting destructive copper mining in the south-east of the country, while Croatian movements organised a major Critical Mass action in Zagreb to demand an just transition away from fossil fuels. Shuar communities in Ecuador are continuing to resist a Chinese copper mining project. Indigenous communities in the Brazilian Cinta Larga are continuing to challenge diamond mining. The Kichwa people of Sarayaku remain a beacon of hope for the world in their fierce resistance against oil drilling in their ancestral homelands. In Guyana, Wai-Wai communities are using mobile technology to protect their lands and forests.
In a landslide electoral victory, residents of the central Colombian town of Cajamarca voted down the world’s largest open-pit gold mining project: la Colosa. It was a triumph of the needs of life over luxury, as 45% of global gold is used for gold bars and 47% for jewellery. This victory also exemplifies the growing use of municipal referenda to oppose extractive projects across the Americas. In El Salvador, several local referenda against mining projects have brought forward a national bill that would ban mining for metals in the country. The bill has been passed with overwhelming congressional support, a historic victory. In another victory, the World Bank exited the controversial Angostura goldmine project in Colombia’s Santurban moorlands.
In the northern Argentine province of Jujuy, communities have marched for over a week to protest and visibilize their struggle against mining. Communities in Southern Mexico are stepping up to protect the disappearing forests of the Lacandon jungle, and in Baja, California, movements have been successful in stopping the Los Cardones open cast mining project. In Panama, flooded Ngäbe communities are continuing to fight the Barro Blanco dam.
From redesigning money to better reflect different degrees of value, to climate-smart agriculture in the Caribbean, to use ancient Nubian low-carbon construction techniques, improving forest management, there is no shortage of solutions. Or of areas to implement them. According to studies by Google, almost 90 per cent of US rooftops are suitable for solar power. However it is not just limiting climate change that requires urgent attention — building capacity to deal with it is also crucial, which is why it is important that the Jamaican government has approved major projects to improve the country’s resilience and adaptation to climate change.
The very way in which modern civilization relates to nature seems to be changing: the high court of the Indian state of Uttarakhand declared the Ganga and Yamuna rivers to be living entities, giving them legal rights. In New Zealand, after 140 years of negotiation, a Māori tribe won legal recognition for Whanganui river, meaning it must be treated as a living entity.
Movements are building their power by reframing environmental solutions as mechanisms that can make a short-term and long-term difference to people’s lives us. As Kumar Venkat writes, “we must steer the debate towards how climate change mitigation can provide tangible co-benefits in other domains. People need to see the upside of climate-friendly policies, while knowing that any costs will be shared broadly by society. Among the issues that matter…on a daily basis, health and employment should be front and center while tackling climate change.”
Obituaries & Recognition
Cruelly, many environment and land defenders — many indigenous and many women — remain at risk for their noble actions.
This month in Mexico journalist Miroslava Breach — who covered illegal logging and killing in Indigenous territories — was murdered.
In Colombia, social leaders from Congreso de los Pueblos, which is heavily involved in agrarian action, were detained by the army while agroecologist and human rights defender Ruth Alicia Lopez Guisao was shot dead by two unidentified gunmen in Medellín. Brazilian land rights defender Waldomiro Costa Pereira was also murdered.
Waldomiro Costa Pereira.
This month also marked the first anniversary of the murder of Berta Cáceres — we remember her gracious spirit, dignity and force.
Elsewhere in Latin America the risks are also high: in Guatemala, human rights defenders have denounced attacks by large dam operators, while in Honduras Suyapa Martínez of the Centro de Estudios de la Mujer was subject to judicial harassment by the company Desarrollo Energético S.A. which stands accused of the murder of Berta Cáceres.
The violence inflicted on such brave activists should inspire us to hold up, support, and be inspired by those people around us who are fighting the good fights.
Ruth Alicia Lopez Guisao. Photo Credit: Congreso de los Pueblos.
Some good souls we wanted to highlight this month include: Alicia Cawiya, an Indigenous activist prepared to defy the powerful to save Ecuador’s Yasuní rainforest; Ridhima Pandey, a 9-year old in India who is bringing a plea to the National Green Tribunal alleging inaction on climate change; Sergei Kechimov, an Indigenous Khanty reindeer herder in Siberia who is confronting oil giants; and Antonio Vicente, an 84-year old Brazilian who has planted 50,000 trees over the past 40 years in an attempt to fight deforestation. To them and the countless others fighting to make the world a better place to live, we give our sincerest thanks.