First Cut of the Madrid Climate Summit

December 10, 2019

I am in the middle of things here at #COP25Madrid where delegates from nearly 200 countries are gathered to dicker and dither about whether they will save the world, or just let it get hotter.

Yesterday Greta Thunberg arrived and led a massive march through the center of the city and repeated her advice: unite behind the science.

Within the halls of the Blue Zone, I was doing exactly that, and my takeaways from those briefings by the Tyndall Centre, the Potsdam Institute, the Stockholm Resilience Centre, the UK Met Office, and others, drawn mainly from a Future Earth presentation are these:

1. The world is not on track.

  • Existing fossil-based infrastructure will, if operated during its full lifecycle, take the world above 1.5°C global warming.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase and the gap between current trends and agreed climate targets has widened.
  • The use of coal has slowed down and is declining in many countries but oil and natural gas is still growing.
  • Carbon Dioxide Reduction in some form is likely needed but shouldn’t be viewed as a substitute for mitigation.
  • By IPCC’s reckoning 1.9 trillion dollars has been spent subsidizing fossil fuel growth since the Paris Agreement, but by my reckoning it is closer to $7 trillion per year. You can’t get out of a deep hole by digging deeper.

2. Climate change is faster and stronger than expected

  • Observations show signs of continuing warming, and sea level rise is accelerating.
  • Even so-called “stable systems” are unexpectedly destabilizing.
  • Greenland and parts of Antarctic ice sheets are showing signs of disintegrating much sooner than expected — decades not centuries.
  • Further impacts on ice sheets and sea level rise have probably been underestimated in the latest IPCC Assessment Report on Cryosphere.
  • High sea-level events that used to happen every 100 years could be experienced every year in megacities around the world by 2050. Mumbai is toast. Soggy toast. More than half the city will be flooded by daily tides.

3. Climate change leaves no mountain summit behind

  • Glaciers are on average estimated to have lost about half a meter in thickness per year in 2006–2015.
  • Changes to glaciers, snow and ice in mountains will likely influence water availability for over a billion people downstream by mid-century.
  • Climate change irreversibly affects mountain ecosystems and their biodiversity, reducing the area of biodiversity hotspots and causing species to go extinct.
  • Adaptation to climate change is possible but its effectiveness is severely constrained if high emissions continue.

4. Forests are under threat, with global consequences

  • The World’s forests are a major CO2 sink, absorbing about 30% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions forest fires driven by human land-use alternation has been reducing major CO2 “sinks.”
  • Climate change globally amplifies wild forest fires. See, for instance the weather report today for New South Wales. Sydney is as threatened as Mumbai is, except from fire, not water.
  • “CO2 fertilization” increases forest photosynthesis capacity, but is increasingly offset by temperature increases that cause tree mortality. (No mention in these science briefings of biochar!)
  • Fighting deforestation and encouraging reforestation, along with sustainable forest management and other natural climate solutions are important and cost-effective options for reduced net emissions.

5. Weather Extremes — a “new normal” in 2019

  • Some extreme weather continues to become more likely and more severe.
  • Increasing number of extremes events but impacts are region-specific.
  • Europe has seen a particularly strong increase in heat extremes.
  • The duration of extreme weather events is anticipated to increase in a 2°C world.
  • Synchronous extremes are risky in a globally-connected world.
  • Societies often don’t have time to fully recover from extreme events before another one hits.
  • Ambitious mitigation can curb risks, but with 1.5°C warming regionally dangerous levels will be reached.

6. Biodiversity — threatened guardian of Earth’s resilience

  • 14% of local land species could be lost already at 1–2°C warming — more than one third in a business-as-usual scenario.
  • With 2 °C warming at least 99% of coral reefs will disappear due to ocean acidification, heatwaves and other pressures.
  • In freshwater, fish die-offs may double by 2050 due to extreme summer temperatures.
  • Natural Climate Solutions are an essential contribution to mitigation, but nowhere near enough to ensure climate stability. At least that is what IPCC is telling people. Clearly not enough scientists have yet to read BURN: Using Fire to Cool the Earth.

7. Climate change threatens food security and the health of hundreds of millions

  • Undernutrition will be the greatest health risk of climate change with declining agricultural productivity
  • Increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide will reduce the nutritional quality of most cereal crops, affecting hundreds of millions of people.
  • Climate change and the rise in carbon dioxide concentrations are projected to result in a 20% reduction in the global availability of protein by 2050.
  • Global fish stocks are set to further decline with climate change, with an additional 10% of the global population facing micronutrient deficiencies as a result.
  • If the Bill Gates Foundation thinks they will technofix this with new generations of CRISPR’d Roundup-ready GMO grains, they have another think coming. This strategy only weakens the soil food web that underpins the photosynthetic cycle we need to heal the Earth. Note: the IPCC and others did not say this. I did. We instead need climate-resilient, indigenous-style, integrated agroforestry, aquacultures, and heirloom animal husbandry. Can I hear an “Amen?”

8. Most vulnerable and the poor are the hardest hit by climate change

  • Vulnerability to climate change impacts is high in countries and parts of the population with low incomes.
  • Failure to address and adapt to climate change will have disastrous consequences for hundreds of millions of people and will hinder development in developing countries.
  • Failure to mitigate and adapt could push 100 million people below the poverty line by 2030.
  • Climate change ‘hotspots’ will push tens to hundreds of millions to migrate, mainly within borders, by 2050.

9. Equity and equality are pivotal to successful climate change mitigation and adaptation

  • Success and failure of climate policies highlight importance of addressing social issues.
  • Social justice is an important factor for societal resilience in the face of climate change, vital for both local and global cooperation to facilitate mitigation and adaptation.

10. Time may have come for social tipping points on climate action

“Time is running out.”
  • An increasing number of citizens in various countries are seriously concerned about climate change.
  • History shows that 21–25% of a population need to change their behavior to enact significant system-level changes.
  • Deep and long-term transformations driven by a great diversity of actors are needed to meet the Paris Agreement and the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals).
  • Recent massive civil protests are getting close to the thresholds where we could expect “tipping” of some socio-economic systems.


Teaser photo credit: By Malopez 21 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Albert Bates

Albert Bates was a civil sector representative at the Copenhagen climate conference, trying to point the world back towards a stable atmosphere using soils and trees.  His book BURN: Using Fire to Cool the Earth has just been released and his book Plastics: From Pollution to Evolution is due out in April 2019. Past books include Climate in Crisis and The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook. Working with the Global Ecovillage Network he has taught appropriate technology, natural building and permaculture to students from more than 60 nations. A former environmental rights lawyer, paramedic, brick mason, flour miller, and horse trainer, Albert Bates received the Right Livelihood Award in 1980 as part of the steering committee of Plenty, working to preserve the cultures of indigenous peoples, and board of directors of The Farm, a pioneering intentional community in Tennessee for the past 40 years. He has taught appropriate technology, natural building and

Tags: environmental crises, environmental effects of climate change, international climate change agreements