Beware the pragmatism of the nonchalant ‘hot earthers’

by Admin
Beware the pragmatism of the nonchalant ‘hot earthers’

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The writer is a science commentator

It was Earth Day on Monday, an annual reminder of our duty to look after the climate and environment for future generations. By any measure, we are failing.

The latest European State of the Climate report, published this week, painted a picture of a continent alternately soaked by floods and baked by heatwaves. Depending on the dataset, 2023 was either the hottest or second hottest year on European record. The rivers ran exceptionally high; a marine heatwave that struck the UK and Ireland was classified as “beyond extreme”. Heat-related deaths rose.

It follows a separate analysis released last week, which calculated how climate change is shrinking the world economy. By 2050, according to researchers in Germany, global income is projected to fall by about a fifth, equivalent to $38tn a year, compared to what it would have been without global warming. Those damages, now locked in and compounding thanks to historical emissions, stem from the effect of rising temperatures on factors relevant to economic growth, such as infrastructure, crop yields and labour productivity. The figure excludes losses from extreme weather events, such as storms and wildfires.

Yet, even though the annual average global temperature in 2023 hit 1.45C above the pre-industrial average, just a shade below the 1.5C limit recommended in the Paris Climate Agreement, support for net zero seems to be wavering. Politicians and investors are softening their opposition to fossil fuels, an approach that has been badged as “energy pragmatism”.

“Pragmatism”, however, is too kind a label. Those watering down efforts to limit global temperature rises should instead be regarded as “hot earthers” — defenders of an outdated status quo and comparable, in their rejection of reality, to the flat-earthers who resist the concept of curvature.

The 2023 European data, compiled by the Copernicus Climate Change Service and the World Meteorological Organization, is yet another compelling argument for decarbonisation. Europe is the fastest-warming continent; last year, it experienced above-average temperatures in every month bar one. It also saw the warmest September on record, and in some areas a sea surface temperature 5C hotter than the average.

Alpine glaciers have lost a tenth of their volume over the past two years. Heat-related mortality has risen by 30 per cent over the past two decades. Storms, floods and wildfires bring their own human and economic casualties. “The cost of [climate] action may seem high”, says Celeste Saulo, secretary general of the WMO, “but the cost of inaction is much higher.” The WMO report for Asia, the richest continent, also shows key climate indicators, including surface temperature and sea level rise, accelerating.

Given that a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapour, flooding has become a fetid motif of a changing climate. Flooding affected 1.6mn people in Europe last year and accounted for more than four-fifths of all climate-related economic losses in the region. Separately, the insurer Munich Re has said about 76 per cent of disaster-related economic losses in 2023 related to major weather events (earthquakes in Turkey and Syria also resulted in substantial losses).

Headline statistics are dominated by the high-value, insured assets of wealthy countries but, even in these pockets of resilience, there are smaller-scale, harder-to-measure cumulative consequences: severed supply chains; lost productivity; disrupted learning; effects on physical and mental health.

As Leonie Wenz and colleagues from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact in Germany showed, along with their ballpark $38tn figure published last week in Nature, the economic losses from climate change will be spread unevenly. Lower-latitude regions, currently seeing the highest temperatures, are particularly vulnerable. Climate economists from Stanford University and the University of California, Davis, who were not involved in the study, told the Associated Press news agency that while they queried some of the Potsdam researchers’ technical calculations, the big picture was correct: tackling climate change urgently is an economic no-brainer.

Sailing so close to the 1.5C threshold is unwise. Overseeing a 2C rise or greater, potentially pushing the planet into a hot zone of tipping points, would be calamitous. Crop failures will push up food prices and sow the seeds of famine. That, in turn, may spark conflict over diminishing resources.

Those who lose their lands and livelihoods will migrate — a further trigger for geopolitical instability. The pragmatists of today risk creating the policy failures of tomorrow.

Climate Capital

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