United Nations Warns Global Effort on Climate Change Inadequate, Transformational Change Urgently Needed

Interview with Tamara Toles O'Laughlin, 350.org's North America director, conducted by Scott Harris

As countries and civil society groups around the world prepared to send delegates to the 25th United Nations Climate Change conference in Madrid, Spain, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned on Dec. 1 that the international effort to stop climate change have been utterly inadequate so far, and there’s a danger global warming could soon pass the point of no return.

The UN chief cited recent scientific research that underscored his concern. The Emissions Gap Report found that with the current country pledges, the world is heading for a 3.2 degrees Celsius temperature rise, with G20 nations accounting for 78 percent of all emissions. The most recent World Metrological Report shows that the concentration of climate-heating greenhouse gas emissions has hit a record high with no sign of a slow down or decline, despite commitments made under the Paris climate accord.  And the Production Gap Report finds that the world is on track to produce about 50 percent more fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with limiting global warming to 2° Celsius and 120 percent more than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5° Celsius.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, climate action group 350.org‘s North America director. Here she discusses the significance of the latest UN reports, the goals of the Madrid climate summit, and the urgent need for rapid and transformational change to address climate change.

TAMARA TOLES O’LAUGHLIN: The (2019 UN climate change conference) COP25 in Madrid is really poised to discuss curbing global emissions. And for us that’s stopping coal, oil and gas production. And we’re demanding that concrete action rather than just pledges and promises come from this particular gathering because the Paris agreement doesn’t even mention fossil fuels. So getting where we need to go from that starting point is a big shift. The meetings themselves will cover a loss and damage and really think through the necessity of compensating vulnerable communities, looking for space to work through climate impacts. This is a period where thoughts and prayers just aren’t going to be enough. People need to see real money in real time. So as we’re entering what we refer to as the climate decade — those 10 critical years that we have to turn things around and push for radical transformation that brings down emissions — we really need to do more than what we have done.

And in 20 years of having these conversations, we’ve never shown up in the way that we need to. So the main obstacle for progress at this meeting are people playing politics with our lives. Our countries, including all of the global North, including Europe and Canada, as well as the U.S. and world powers like India and China and Brazil have to show up for radical transformation. They have to commit immediately to halting coal, oil and gas infrastructure and make plans to transition off of these fuels in a way that allows us to move our old business into the business that will afford us sustainably. Currently, what we’re up against, we’re witnessing devastating impacts of climate breakdown on a daily basis around the globe – from the wildfires in LA, to the ones in the Congo and Australia and devastating floods in Europe.

And, more extreme events like (Tropical Storm) Sandy, entire communities and ecosystems are being impacted and there’s nothing except immorality that’s keeping us from expanding fossil fuel production. We’re continuing down this road where we put money into things that are destroying us instead of investing into the future. And that is essentially the conversation that’s happening in COP25 – what is it going to take for us to go above and beyond what was then aggressive in the Paris climate agreement in 2014 and what can we do to make sure that the pledges that are made by each of these countries goes as far as we need them to go?

BETWEEN THE LINES: Tamara, during the last climate summit, there was a lot of discussion about keeping the rise of global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius and if possible, limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Talk about those numbers, which I think to the average person may not mean a lot. What’s the significance of 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees and the predictions that we’re heading towards 3 and 4 degrees warmer temperature across the planet.

TAMARA TOLES O’LAUGHLIN:  Sure. Well, I’m going to provide a little shorthand and say that my family is from all over the U.S. I’m a little bit of the Caribbean. So for my part I can tell you that if we go up any higher than 1.5 degrees, every place you love to visit will be extinguished. The Island and nation states of people who have done nothing to cause climate change will no longer be able to live on their homes because as extreme weather effects has proven, they cannot withstand the damage that is coming. The consequences are really dire. So the difference between 2 degrees Celsius and 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels really is what we need to imagine are stronger hurricanes, typhoons and frequent wildfires that we’ve come to think about, as seasons of chaos where people lose their lives. If we go above 2 degrees Celsius, the impacts will be even more severe.

That’s why it’s stunning that the UN Emissions Gap Report shows that if we continue at our current levels, we’ll be at 3.2 degrees Celsius by 2100 which is an absolute point of no return. This is an existential threat for human survival and for the people who inhabit the planet. So it feels like a lot of numbers flying around, but ultimately what we need to know is that this is our last best chance to limit global emissions and really take this on with any hope of allowing for us to enjoy a life that feels anything similar to what the previous generations have been able to experience. And so, it’s difficult to get people to wrap their minds around why we have to stop doing what we’re doing. But even in the midst of all the great reporting that’s come out, we’ve only increased our emissions rather than cutting them down. And that’s pretty disheartening given how much advocacy, activism and real heart has gone into the climate fight.

For more information, visit 350.org.

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