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2018: A tipping point for climate change

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15-year-old Greta Thunberg with a sign that reads ‘School strike for the climate’, during her protest against climate change on November 30, 2018. Greta has camped outside Swedish parliament in Stockholm and refused to go to school until things change. Photo: EPA

As 2018 comes to an end, it can be said that the year has proved to be a major tipping point for the issue of climate change globally as well as in Bangladesh.

First we had the publication of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on 1.5 degrees which made two very clear scientific findings. First that there will be a world of difference in the severity of adverse climate change impacts between a temperature rise of 1.5 and 2 degrees. It is not just that poor countries would be the only ones to suffer but all countries will suffer very severe adverse impacts with a 2 degree temperature rise. Just to give one example, it will mean the loss of the entire Great Barrier Reef in Australia, one of the great natural wonders of the world. Secondly, it asserted that, even though it would be difficult, it was still possible to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees if all countries acted together to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by reducing use of fossil fuels and switching to 100 percent renewable energy no later than 2050.

The second important point was the ability of the scientific community who study extreme climatic events to make attribution to human induced climate change in real time rather than retrospectively. To give an example, when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in 2017 and caused significant flood damage in the city of Houston, scientists took a year to make the attribution that the rainfall associated with Harvey was 30 percent higher due to enhanced temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico at that time which was attributable to human induced climate change.

Then a year later when Hurricane Florence was coming towards the eastern coast of the United States of America in 2018, the same scientists were able to predict, even before the hurricane hit land, that the rainfall associated with the hurricane would be 50 percent higher due to the unusually elevated temperature in the Atlantic Ocean at that time due to human induced climate change. Scientists were also able to make similar assessments in real time for Typhoon Mangkhut which hit the Philippines and China and also, the severe wildfires in California.

This is an extremely important scientific breakthrough as it now enables us to attribute loss and damage to human induced climate change and not just to natural events as before. To cite just two significant examples, nearly a hundred people lost their lives in the wildfires in California, and when Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina it caused toxic coal pits at several coal-fired power plants to overflow their embankments spilling toxic coal ash into the river and causing significant harm to drinking water sources of several towns downstream. This is important as the coal pits were supposed to be able to withstand normal hurricanes (which occur every year) but were not able to withstand the abnormal hurricane due to climate change. Thus the entire damage from the toxic coal ash spills is attributable to human induced climate change.

A third significant event in 2018 was the recently completed 24th Conference of Parties (COP24) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held in Katowice, Poland where the Rule Book for implementation of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change was agreed upon. However, the more significant debate that took place was the refusal of the Trump delegation with Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait to “welcome” the IPCC Special Report on 1.5 degrees (which had indeed been requested by the UNFCCC at COP21 in Paris). This was very clearly a power play by the fossil fuel companies who control the governments of these four countries trying to turn back the tide on tackling climate change. They only achieved a Pyrrhic victory by fighting over one word as they brought far more global attention to the findings of the IPCC Report by challenging it than would have happened if they had just quietly welcomed it!

The most memorable, and by far more important and lasting impression from COP24, was and will continue to be the speech given to the world leaders there by Greta Thunberg, the 15-year-old school student from Sweden, who shamed them for their inaction. She has since set off a global movement by school students and young people everywhere who are challenging the role of their leaders in taking climate change as seriously as it deserves to be taken. The post-2018 global struggle on climate change is now being transformed into a fight between the young and the old in every country, where the young will eventually triumph.

This is particularly significant in the US where Trump and his Federal government are most blatantly supporting fossil fuel companies, but where the governors of states like California, mayors of cities like New York and heads of companies like Tesla are challenging him and going in the opposite direction. The recent mid-term elections for the House of Representatives which brought in a significant majority of younger Democrats, who fought on the platform of “green jobs”, are an excellent example of this new “young vs old” paradigm on climate change.

Finally, in the context of Bangladesh where we have now had over a decade of planning to tackle climate change and also in implementing hundreds of projects in many sectors within and outside government, 2018 will mark the end of the first period of the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP). From 2019 onwards we will embark on its second phase up to 2030. This will enable Bangladesh to become a pioneer in demonstrating how to enable transformational adaptation at the national scale in order to become the world’s most climate resilient country by 2030.

Thus the pre-2018 narrative for Bangladesh was that we were one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change but the post-2018 narrative is that we are on the way to becoming the most resilient.


Originally this article was published on December 26, 2018 at Daily Star. The author Dr. Saleemul Huq is the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).
Email: saleemul.huq@icccad.net

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