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The threat posed by climate change is no longer an environmental issue

Stress map of future risk - image credit: Holyrood

The threat posed by climate change is no longer an environmental issue

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) doesn’t mess around.

Humanity has 12 years, it explained, in which to avert catastrophe. A 12-year window in which to take the action necessary to keep global temperature rises to under 1.5C.

The difference between 1.5C and 2C is the difference between a world with or without coral reefs. That half a degree is also the difference between summer sea ice disappearing from the Arctic Ocean once per decade, or once per century. Go beyond 1.5C, even by half a degree, and the risk of drought, flooding, extreme heat and rising poverty will put the lives of hundreds of millions of people at risk.

At 1.5C, the proportion of the global population exposed to water stress could be 50 per cent lower than at 2C, while the number at risk of climate-related poverty would vary by hundreds of millions.

At 2C, extremely hot days would become hotter and more common, leading to increasing numbers of heat-related deaths and more forest fires. Meanwhile, insects would be twice as likely to lose half their habitat at 2C compared with 1.5C. That would mean more crops would go unpollinated and more people would go hungry.

In short, the report, released last month, offered a window into a world of nightmares.

The good news is that the IPCC did offer solutions. The bad news is that, according to the authors, averting disaster will require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”. Humanity will need to take the most radical, concerted form of action in its tens of thousands of years of history, and it will need to have done it in the next 12 years.

The warnings have become louder and more desperate in recent years. Mainstream politicians of all shapes recognise the risk of rising sea levels, of increasing conflict over water and food, and of the prospect of huge numbers of displaced people wandering the earth to form the greatest refugee caravans the planet has ever known.

For island states and cities, climate change represents an existential threat. As Marshall Islands’ foreign minister Tony de Brum put it, ahead of a meeting between vulnerable island states to discuss preparations for future evacuations: “Displacements of populations and destruction of cultural language and tradition is equivalent in our minds to genocide.”

So what will it take to avert disaster? According to the IPCC, global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide would need to fall by about 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. As Jim Skea, co-chair of IPCC Working Group III, put it: “Limiting warming to 1.5C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes.”

And while there were echoes of scepticism in reactions to the report – US President Donald Trump recently reacted to a detailed climate change report from his own government by flat-out announcing – “I don’t believe it” – other actors were quietly making plans.

Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, for example, has been vocal in his warning over the systemic risk posed by climate change. As he put it: “Climate change is a tragedy on the horizon which will impose major costs on future generations that the current one has no direct incentive to fix. The catastrophic impacts of climate change will be felt beyond the horizons of most actors.

“Once climate change becomes a clear and present danger to financial stability, it may already be too late to stabilise the atmosphere.”

The bank’s concern is understandable. In fact, last year set a record for weather-related insurance losses, which reached around $140bn. According to BoE forecasts, losses in 2018 may be among the worst in history.

As Carney put it just last week: “This is an extension of a worrying pattern that has seen the number of extreme weather events more than triple and inflation-adjusted insured losses rise five-fold in the past three decades. The outlook is even more concerning. Last month’s IPCC report shows that many land and ocean ecosystems have already changed due to global warming. And that is very much the IPCC’s best-case scenario. The impacts will be significantly worse under 2 degrees, and the Paris commitments – even if fully implemented – are consistent with more than 2.7 degrees of warming.”

The comments followed a new report by the Bank of England, based on a survey of 90 per cent of the banking sector and including over £11trn in assets, which found that while 70 per cent of banks recognise that climate change poses financial risks, only 10 per cent manage these pressures comprehensively.

These risks to the financial sector largely relate to the most immediate physical threats to their business models – with the BoE highlighting exposure to mortgages on homes that are at risk of flooding, or the exposure of their investment in countries that could be impacted by extreme weather events.

Meanwhile, it’s not just the financial sector that is being forced to reassess its footing in the face of climate change.

A recent Ministry of Defence (MoD) report, ‘Global Strategic Trends’, assesses a range of factors influencing military decision-making. The growth of Artificial Intelligence, for example, is viewed as a trend with huge potential impact, but also a huge degree of uncertainty over its future. Greater automation, in contrast, is listed as having a greater degree of certainty over its potential growth, but with a lower potential impact.

The various factors are scattered around a graph, depending on their likelihood and impact. Then, sitting out on its own, with a very high impact, but very low degree of uncertainty, sits ‘Increasing disruption and cost of climate change’, which the MoD forecasts will lead to “increased interstate and intra-state competition and conflict”.

As the report puts it: “Human influence on the climate system will have far-reaching consequences as floods, drought, storms, heatwaves and heavy rainfall become more intense and possibly more frequent. Transport and trade routes, including key chokepoints, are likely to be disrupted, affecting global markets and supply chains. Rising sea levels will increase the risk of flooding with low-lying tropical island communities and coastal cities (especially in developing countries) at particular risk.

“Pollution, habitat destruction and over exploitation will lead to significant reductions in biodiversity and increase the risk that some ecosystems will rapidly collapse. The demand for food and water will increase but some crops will fail and water shortages will become more frequent. The destruction of homes and livelihoods due to natural disasters could also lead to increasing migration and increased tensions.”

But although the IPCC report emphasises the difference between 1.5 and 2C of warming, according to MoD analysis, the global commitments made under the Paris Agreement – if met – would likely see temperature rises of between 2.3 and 3.5C by 2100.

Yet while the military and the markets scramble to cope with changing risks, others have looked to the potential opportunities brought by the transition away from fossil fuels.

Decommissioning – the removal of oil and gas assets – represents a huge and untapped area for growth, with Scotland well placed to capitalise on it. In fact, while estimates from OGUK suggest the opportunities from North Sea decommissioning could be worth up to £17bn before 2025, exporting skills around the world could bring in even more.

As Scottish Tory acting leader Jackson Carlaw put it: “It’s estimated that, globally, decommissioning will be a $30 billion industry within the next five years. Across the world, countries are eyeing up this business and aiming to corner the market. We must meet the challenge – and ensure Aberdeen becomes the global hub for decommissioning.”

He added: “I can assure you that Scottish Conservative MPs and MSPs who represent the North-east will bust a gut over the coming months to ensure we do. To ensure it’s Aberdeen, not anywhere else, that is known as the go-to city, so that the engineering expertise built up in the North-east these past 50 years isn’t lost.”

These opportunities were also laid out in a Scottish Green report, ‘Jobs in Scotland’s new economy’, which found that decommissioning and the growth of green energy could create 200,000 jobs in Scotland.

Mark Ruskell, the Scottish Green climate spokesperson, told Holyrood: “If you think about it, we have tens of thousands of miles of pipeline, which is going to have to be decommissioned. That creates a big opportunity, not just in terms of the jobs in removing material from the seabed, but also in terms of circular economy, because businesses can take that material and repurpose it into other structures. So that is significant, but obviously in the longer term, we are going to need to see much more investment in offshore renewables and the growth of that sector, alongside decommissioning.”

For Ruskell, the idea that sound environmental policy is somehow at odds with economic security is obviously a source of frustration.

He told Holyrood: “It’s a false debate that has been propagated by those acting in the interests of corporations that want to maximise profit against environmental compliance. The smart way to think of the future here is to consider the win-wins. You can have strong economic growth, you can have wealth creation on the back of that, but it needs to be within the context of climate change and sustainable development.

“In Scotland there is always this quite ill-informed debate about whether it’s jobs versus the environment, but in fact, with the way society is going, it is important to look for sustainable economic growth within secure environmental limits. You also have to think about the impact on communities as well, so we don’t go back to the collapse of communities we saw in the 1980s after the government withdrew support for the coal industry. We need to leave debates about whether it’s environment versus the economy to the last century, where they belong.”

Read the most recent article written by Liam Kirkaldy - RSE urges Commonwealth governments to take action on climate crisis

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