More than two-thirds of the world’s biggest cities are in coastal regions, with 80 percent of their inhabitants living within 100 km of the coast. Osaka, Alexandria, Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai, Lagos, Miami, Jakarta, Manila and Philadelphia, to name only a few, are at risk of rising waters.
Reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change establish “that we’re killing the very foundations of life on this planet.” However, COP25 – the 25th meeting of the UN-sponsored Congress of Parties on climate change – has now staggered to a stop with no substantive agreement on limiting carbon dioxide emissions.
Alden Mayer, the strategy chief of the Union of Concerned Scientists, called it a frustrating disconnect between what the science requires and what the climate negotiations are delivering in terms of meaningful action. “Most of the world's biggest emitting countries are missing in action and resisting calls to raise their ambition," he said.
With the Trump administration in Washington having opted out of the historic Paris Agreement on Climate Change voted by 196 countries in 2016, whatever oomph there was behind the pact has largely vanished. Jair Bolsonaro, the right-wing president of Brazil, was quoted as sneering, "I'd like to know: has there been a resolution for Europe to be reforested, or are they just going to keep bothering Brazil?"
But while Washington fiddles and Brazil literally burns, the inaction of the world’s leading governments is reflected in a new research paper by Ovais Sarmad, the deputy executive director, and Koko Warner, the manager of the risks program of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change have produced a deeply researched paper, with the cumbersome title “Global Shifts: A Changing Climate, A Changing World, Climate Change and Human Mobility” that paints a frightening picture of what appears to be inevitable and unstoppable progress toward disaster. The report was made available by the UN-affiliated International Organization for Migration.
Urbanization, human mobility, technological disruption, demographics, land and climate change “are colliding in ways that dramatically challenge how countries deal with matters of common concern,” they write. “The interactions of these megatrends are changing the face of our planet and society; they challenge many of the notions of what it means to achieve a prosperous, stable, safe existence for humanity.”
In these areas, “everything from food and water, to energy and sanitation, and economies are expected to be impacted in the coming decades,” according to the report. They urge accelerating the efforts to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C to minimize the worst of these impacts. To do so, they say, global CO2 emissions must be reduced by 45 percent by 2030 and reach net zero emissions globally by 2050.
That appears to be a futile plan despite the fact that the average global temperature for the last five years is on track to be the warmest of any period in human history. The level of CO2 in the atmosphere is the highest it has ever been during human life, they say. Globally-averaged concentrations of carbon dioxide reached 407.8 parts per million in 2018, up from 405.5 ppm in 2017. The summer of 2019 represented some of the hottest months ever recorded.
Heat waves were the deadliest weather hazard over the past five years, they say, affecting all continents and setting new national temperature records. Warm air from a heatwave in Europe in July 2019 reached Greenland, sending temperature and surface melting to record levels. The number of people exposed to heat waves since 2000 has increased by about 125 million, contributing to the increased risk of heat-related illness and death.
Antarctica is melting three times as fast as a decade ago, with the oceans absorbing more heat than previously thought. A Global Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services suggest that nature is facing an “unprecedented and dangerous decline.”
Currently worldwide, extreme weather events displace more than 20 million people annually. They move towards areas offering safety and livelihoods, such as in rapidly growing settlements in low-lying coastal zones. These burgeoning urban areas also face changing exposure to combinations of storm surges and sea level rise, coastal erosion and soil and water salinization and land subsidence.
Growing urban areas attract rural population migration seeking livelihood and educational opportunities. This may lead to being trapped in precarious and unsafe situations, the authors write. Informal settlements – slums and shantytowns – where migrants often first arrive in cities are among the most rapidly growing urban spaces and are often prone to hazard from fire, flooding, and landslides.
At 2° C warming, “there is a potential for significant population displacement concentrated in the tropics,” according to the report, forcing tropical populations to move at distances greater than 1,000 km” by the end of the century. That could cause population densities in the tropical margins and subtropics to increase by 300 percent or more.
As Asia Sentinel reported on November 28, increasing population movement is already exacerbating political tensions, with not only US President Donald Trump railing against immigration but with objections to economic migrants spreading from Austria to Australia to the countries surrounding Venezuela.
Livelihood-related migration nonetheless is almost inevitably going to accelerate in the short- to medium-term when weather-dependent livelihood systems deteriorate in relation to changes in precipitation, changes in ecosystems, and land degradation and desertification, according to the report. Climate impact and risk can exacerbate or otherwise interact with social tensions corresponding with movement at larger scales and long-term deterioration in habitability of regions could trigger spatial population shifts.
“Conflict and changes in weather patterns can worsen conditions for people working in rain-fed agriculture or subsistence farming—interrupting production systems, degrading land and vegetation further. In recent decades, droughts and other climatic stressors have compounded livelihood pressures in areas already torn by strife, such as in the Horn of Africa,” the report says.
“Seizing of agricultural land by competing factions and preventing food distribution in times of shortage have—in this region and others—contributed to a triad of food insecurity, humanitarian need, and large movements of people.”
This is not some point in the future. This is happening now, Donald Trump and his coterie of climate deniers or not.
The next two years “provide an important opportunity for nations and every individual to accelerate ambition and action,” according to the report. But given the lack of action on the part of the nations that did show up in Madrid for COP25, the prospects are dim indeed.