A bulletin of news from the front lines of the fight against climate change
“There are years that ask questions and years that answer”
― Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
2016 has been described as “the end of the world as we know it” with Brexit, Donald Trump’s victory, and the ‘no’ vote in the Colombian peace deal referendum shocking the political establishment. Around the world, economic and environmental shocks are creating conditions where extremism and hatred can breed. The unspeakable horrors of war in Syria and the inability or unwillingness of European governments to humanely respond to the displacement caused by war, famine, and poverty have given a haunting glimpse into one possible future.
Whether or not it is a human tendency to view the present moment as the most volatile is debatable. What is not debatable is the backdrop to these political upheavals: a rapidly warming world.
Since June we have been compiling monthly bulletins which highlight the reality of current climate change―impacts such as storms, droughts, floods, and scorching heat. We call it “The World at 1°C” to acknowledge the terrible fact that the global average temperature is already 1°C warmer than it was before the industrial revolution. In fact, it is now already 1.2°C warmer.
Our bulletins have also tried to share the stories from movements around the world. Many frontline struggles are subject to state and paramilitary violence―we have suffered heavy losses of (mostly Indigenous) community activists. In spite of this, and against all odds, movements have secured many victories. We have tried to share those stories too―not to sugar-coat the scale of the challenge before us or to provide a false hope, but to recognise and learn from those struggles. Our hope is in the multiple and the collective because, after all, detras de nosotros estamos ustedes. Behind us, we are you.
A Crisis Felt Around the World
2016 was a year of shattered environmental records, including the lowest ever levels of Arctic sea ice, the hottest months ever recorded (July and August), and the first climate change-induced extinction of a mammal species. The largest glacier in East Antarctica is melting at record-breaking speeds. Over Christmas temperatures in the North Pole were so freakishly warm that they breached melting point. Overall, 2016 was the warmest year on record with 22 nations setting all-time heat record.
For the first time in millions of years the monthly value of carbon in the atmosphere failed to drop below 400 parts per million, signalling a new era in the Earth’s climate. The consequences of passing such a milestone were outlined in a new report by US researchers, which showed how global warming is severely threatening grasses: staples such as wheat and rice are not able to adapt to the pace of temperature change.
Within a decade, the target set in the Paris Agreement (limiting warming to 1.5°C) will be impossible to reach due in part to a rise in methane emissionsand a failure to reduce other greenhouse gas emissions. This is not helped by the conversion of half the planet to human-dominated land use―including “false solutions” such as biofuels that aim to reduce emissions but actually do the opposite. If the 1.5°C target is to be met, there can be no new coal, oil and gas extraction. There will also need to be a massive effort to halt deforestation and restore ecosystems―the only true way to achieve “negative emissions technologies”.
Alarmingly, a new study published in the journal Science Advances has posited that the UN’s estimates on our current temperature trajectory may actually be significantly underestimated. Previous estimates held that by 2100 we could reach between 2.6°C to 4.8°C of warming: researchers now argue that because of a greater sensitivity of the climate to greenhouse gases in warm phases, the range is more likely to be 4.78°C to 7.36°C. These are cataclysmic levels. New research has also suggested that climate change will help heighten global inequality: the poorest 60% of the world’s population will see their average income driven down by 70% by 2100.
In the here and now, losses and damages continue to stack up. Entire marine kelp ecosystems are disappearing. With the La Niña phenomenon auguring further extreme weather, a recent report from military experts warned of a “humanitarian crisis of epic proportions” stemming from catastrophic climate change. The challenge of climate-induced displacement continues to grow, with one person now displaced by disaster every second. Aside from the devastation of climate change, the air pollution of dirty energy means that 92% of the global population breathes excessive air pollution according to the World Health Organisation.
The impacts felt around the world this year are too many to list, and the devastation too harsh to describe. Below are just some examples of the profound challenges facing the world at 1°C.
As the region that was “most affected” by last year’s extreme climate events (according to the most recent edition of the Global Climate Risk Index), the fact that Africa played host to UN climate change negotiations in Marrakech, Morocco caused some to hope for a meeting focused on reality rather than rhetoric. However, it was the discord between rhetoric and reality in the host country that was brought to light by local activists who have been campaigning against environmental crimes by the state in Safi and Imidir.
Meanwhile, many sub-Saharan states continued to fight a vicious ongoing drought with some countries in southeastern Africa having had no real harvest in the last three years. Namibia faced a state of emergency due to the worst drought in 25 years. Hundreds of thousands faced deep hunger in Somalia, where 40% of the population required food aid, and where livestock herders in the drought-stricken region of Puntland were forced to trek an average of 60 km to fetch drinking water, leading to calls for a significant up-scaling of humanitarian assistance. Lesotho, one of the worst hit countries, was estimated to harvest only 25,000 tonnes of maize this year, a stark drop from last year’s 78,000-tonne haul. In Southern Madagascar, a third year of drought led to a million people facing the threat of hunger, and over half its children suffering from nutritional deficiencies. In Morocco, as many as 175,000 workers have lost their jobs in the farming sector this year due to severe drought.
Across Asia and the Pacific, storms followed droughts to cause severe flooding in many countries. In India, flooding wrecked the states of North Bengal, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Assam and Himachal Pradesh―displacing over a million people―while in Jammu and Kashmir states landslides followed intense rain. Landslides also wrought havoc in Nepal and Bangladesh. Women and children fleeing to larger cities were often forced to turn to sex work to survive.
Thailand suffered an unforgiving drought, whereas in Myanmar flooding displaced over 430,000 people and caused 2,171 schools to shut across six regions and states. Typhoon Nida brought lethal torrential rains to the Vietnamese province of Lao Cai and central provinces saw 38 inches of rainfall in just two days, killing 25 and destroying 240,000 homes. Further floods in the Central Highlands killed 15 people
Many other storms and typhoons swept in from the Pacific, including Typhoon Chaba which killed six people in South Korea, and thirteen people in China. Super Typhoon Lawin damaged 100% of houses in Tuguegarao City, Philippines. The 234 km/h winds of Super Thyphoon Nepartak pummelled Taiwan before smashing into China, where floods displaced 1.5 million people, killed over 200 people, destroyed hundreds of thousands of crop hectares, and affected over 32 million people. Even Saudi Arabia experienced flooding, which left seven dead.
Heavy rains also tormented Western Java and Aceh, causing serious landslides. The Indonesian government contributed to the problem by expanding its extractive frontier, with coal and palm oil concessions.
The summer saw Western Asia gripped by a sweltering heat wave. Temperatures in Kuwait and Iraq reached 54°C; for two months, Baghdad experienced temperatures of 43°C and higher nearly every day. Across Iraq, crops wilted and hospitals saw surges in people suffering from dehydration and heat exhaustion.
In Israel and Palestine, major wildfires led to the evacuation of tens of thousands of people. In the West Bank the heat wave caused severe water shortages and escalated tensions after Israel cut off water supplies.
In the Pacific, hunger and drought followed the most intense El Nino year: communities in Bougainville endured critical food shortages as crops were destroyed by increasing soil salinity. Days of incessant rain caused widespread flooding in Fiji. The Red Cross called for greater investment in disaster risk reduction throughout the region, before it is “too late for many”. As our bulletins bear witness to, it is already too late for too many.
Signs that the earth itself is changing beyond recognition included the concerning anthrax outbreak in the Siberian Yamal Peninsula, where heat waves are thawing permafrost, allowing for pathogens from old frozen carcasses to surface, infecting dozens. Similarly, the dramatic bleaching of the Great Barrier reef is the largest in living memory and likely indicates the beginning of the end for a wonder of the world. Additionally, warming continues to destroy tens of thousands of hectares of mangroves in Australia.
CENTRAL & SOUTH AMERICA
A study by two UN agencies warned that climate change already threatens the basis of food security in Latin America & the Caribbean. This was painfully evident from experiences in the region this year, where shrinking glaciers and the worst drought in 25 years caused a severe state of emergency in Bolivia. The drought was exacerbated by large-scale mining projects, large plantations and state mismanagement. Similarly, Argentine Patagonia also suffered its worst drought in 17 years. Droughts also encouraged wildfires in the Peruvian states of Cajamarca and Lambayeque as well as further south in Chile, where forest fires broke out in the Santiago region.
In Brazil, a 29% increase in deforestation and raging wildfires combined to force some of the world’s last remaining uncontacted Indigenous tribes out of the Amazon. The Temer government, which swept to power in what many called a coup d’etat, made matters worse by pushing forward a devastating rollback of environmental legislation. Even as Brazil hosted its controversial Olympic Games in Rio, researchers warned that rising temperatures will soon make it essentially impossible for most cities to the host the Summer Games.
Even Fortress Europe was exposed to the chaos of a 1°C warmer world as torrential rain and flash flooding left dozens dead in Macedonia and intense forest fires raged across Portugal, Spain, Greece, Montenegro and France, forcing thousands to flee their homes.
Governments in the region did not respond with the kind of ambitious action to tackle climate change that such devastation would warrant. Instead, the UK and German government were criticized by the UN for betraying the spirit of the Paris Agreement. For its part, the UK government scrapped its Department of Energy & Climate Change at a time that chemical giant Ineos plans to drill 30 fracking wells within the next months. NGOs slammed the inadequate plan of the European Commission to cut emissions 40% by 2030. The pledge seems hollow as new EU rules, “would allow the power plants to continue claiming their operations are green for at least 13 more years, despite releasing more heat-trapping pollution than coal”.
NORTH AMERICA & CARIBBEAN
Hurricane Matthew, the most powerful storm in the history of Eastern Caribbean, hit Haiti, while Hurricane Nicole battered Bermuda. In the aftermath, Haiti experienced an outbreak of cholera and significant food and water shortages. Heavy storms also hit Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, causing colossal damage across the country.
The Canadian city of Fort McMurray, ground zero of the Tar Sands industry, was devastated by wildfires and subsequently hit by torrential rains. Fire and water were familiar themes further south, where record-breaking floods lashed the states of Louisiana and Mississippi, and major forest fires swept Southern California.
Anatomy of Global Hope
Solutions are within reach, and are being implemented by communities the world over. From codifying the rights of Indigenous communities to their lands, to afforestation, to agro-ecology, to supporting democratic renewable energy, people power is winning major victories the world over.
Solar energy has grown 100-fold over the last decade in the United States, and the price of renewable technology is falling drastically; in South Africa, the price of wind and solar is coming in at half the cost of new coal plants. Last year, over half of all new energy capacity came from renewables, and there are growing indications that 100% renewable energy can be achieved far quicker than expected. Solar power is now the cheapest global form of electricity according to Bloomberg. By and large it has been women and girls leading the renewables revolution.
Pressure from campaigners has forced investors representing $5.2 trillion in assets to divest from fossil fuels. That includes massive financial firms, pension funds, cities and regional governments, and a host of wealthy individuals. Not bad for a movement that only got its start in 2011.
The number of climate-related legal actions is surging as activists employ all means available to them to, with one 7 year-old Pakistani girl suing her government over its exploitation of lignite coal.
Battles over the right to land continued in 2016, as in every year. Several communities managed to kick out agribusiness from their territory, and Indigenous women in India grew back their forests after cash crop plantations had taken over. BP was forced to drop its plan to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight, a delicate marine ecosystem.
In Peru there was a victory for justice as the Matsés people forced a Canadian oil company from their territory: 45 Achuar communities will have to take their fight against oil drilling in the Amazon into 2017. In Argentina, Mapuche Indigenous communities blockaded their territory in order to stop US multinational Chevron drilling new frack wells, and in Brazil the Munduruku people have managed to suspend construction of a mega-dam that threatened to submerge their home. Also in Brazil, the state of Parana decided to ban fracking.
Across Asia, Indigenous Peoples from Borneo to Kyrgyzstan also stepped up the fight to defend their sacred lands. The resistance to the Rampal coal-fired power plant in Bangladesh continued, with thousands taking to the streets of Dhaka to demand the scrapping of the project. Campaigners in China were delighted with their victory as the government abandoned its plans to dam the Nuijang, the last free-flowing river in the country. Land defenders in Aliaga, Turkey, claimed a monumental victory against the coal industry.
Resistance to the root causes of climate change persisted in Colombia despite repression and threats at the site of the country’s first fracking project. Rama and Kriol communities resisted logging in Nicaragua, Q’eqchi, Achí and Pomcomchí Maya water protectors defied mega-dams in Guatemala, and Puerto Ricans protested the dumping of toxic coal ash in their communities. The struggle to end the diversion of the Arroyo Bruno by Colombia’s Cerrejón coal mine continued, with leaders of the community of Tabaco calling on the Constitutional Court to stop all works.
In Puget Sound, USA, Shell pulled out of its project to build a rail unloading facility for oil trains. Activists in Canada manually shut down all pipelines delivering tar sands oil to the US, while in Dakota the water protectors atStanding Rock continued to defiantly defend their land in the face of brutal police attacks . The ongoing resistance garnered a lot of attention, but was of course not news to Indigenous Peoples across the Americas who have been resisting for 500 years. The defenders won several victories against what they call the black snake of the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016, including revocation of permits for sections of the pipeline. The fight continues, the camp remains through the harsh winter, and solidarity actions have escalated.
Loss of Comrades
“We are named, now we will not die”
― Zapatista slogan
Sadly 2016 also saw many atrocious attacks, intimidation and threats against environmental and human rights defenders are receiving around the world, such as those being levelled at Q’eqchi’ women in San Pedro Carchá currently defending their land and water from mega-hydro company Renace, at Christopher Kisembo, a land defender in Uganda, and against environmental and Indigenous rights defender Máxima Acuña in Peru. We stand in solidarity with these courageous defenders of life and support further protection for all those struggling for a better world.
Such threats are especially concerning in a year which also saw the tragic death of many community organisers, often at the hands of paramilitaries. Berta Cáceres’ murder was a defining moment of 2016. One of her friends writes here of her powerful legacy of justice and truth-telling. Her assassination adds her name to the pantheon of murdered defenders of environmental justice, expanded so painfully this year, including:
Zafar Iqbal Lund, a Pakistani environmentalist and poet;
Luic Araujo, the Brazilian environmental secretary for Altamira;
Nilce de Souza Magalhães, a human rights defender working to protect communities from mega-dam projects in Brazil;
Jeremy Abraham Barrios Lima, a human and environmental rights activist from Guatemala; Benjamín Roderico Ic Coc, the departmental representative of the Maya Council of Petén Pop Batz;
Erley Monroy Fierro, a prominent environmentalist and member of the Campesino Association of Losada-Guayabero;
Congolese park ranger Patrick Muhayirwa;
Walter Méndez in Guatemala;
Nelson García Laínez in Honduras;
Maricela Tombé, community leader and environmental campaigner from El Tambo;
Alexander Oime, the Governor of the Indigenous Río Blanco reserve;
and Soe Moe Tun, a Burmese journalist reporting on illegal logging in the Sagaing region.
Four environmental defenders were killed as police opened fire on a protest against a coal mine in Hazaribagh, India in late September; two were killed after an anti-mining protest was shut down by police in Alpamarca, Peru in November. This metabolism of misery shows little sign of ebbing; in 2016, the number of murdered land rights defenders tripled.
We stand in deep gratitude to honour the precious memory and legacy of those who we lost this year. As the poet Galway Kinnell wrote, “the wages of dying are love”.