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26th Sep 2020

Interview

Russian and US obstruction was 'insult' to climate scientists

  • A protest in the US supporting science. The US is one of four countries that snubbed a recent scientific report on climate change. (Photo: Fibonacci Blue)

The refusal of Kuwait, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the US to officially welcome a report on the consequences of 1.5C of global warming at the annual UN climate talks is "insulting", according to a leading European climate scientist.

"The UN specifically asked for this report," said Richard Betts, professor at the university of Exeter and the head of Climate Impacts in the Met Office Hadley Centre.

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  • UK professor Richard Betts, co-author of several international climate change reports. (Photo: Peter Teffer)

"We know that most countries wanted to 'welcome' the report, and some wanted to only 'note' it. … It's an insult to my colleagues who worked incredibly hard for three years writing that report," he added.

In October, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the report, which mapped the different changes to the world's climate if global warming was limited at 1.5C rather than 2C.

Currently, the average global temperature is already around 1C higher, compared to pre-industrial levels.

"Before the Paris agreement, the UN ambition was to limit the warming to 2C," Betts told EUobserver in an interview in Katowice.

"But a lot of the small island states, and places like Bangladesh with low-lying coastlines, they said: '2C is still dangerous to us. Let's make it 1.5'," Betts added.

The seemingly-superficial spat over whether to 'welcome' or 'note' the IPCC report in the text under negotiation at the annual UN climate change talks, held in Katowice, Poland, emerged at the conference's plenary last weekend.

The difference between noting and welcoming the report is more than just an academic discussion.

If the countries only noted the report, it would not necessarily follow that more action was needed. If they on the other hand welcomed it, this would imply they agreed with the report's conclusions that more needed to be done.

This in turn would mean an even faster limiting of greenhouse gas emissions - many of which are the result of burning fossil fuels.

The fossil four

The four countries that wanted to block welcoming the report - Kuwait, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the US - all have significant fossil fuel companies at home.

Also, US president Donald Trump has repeatedly questioned whether humans are responsible for climate change.

Betts, a lead author on other IPCC reports, was not one of the authors this time. However, he led an EU-funded research project called Helix, which fed into the IPCC report on 1.5C.

The EU-funded research looked at what would happen if the world's global temperature increase, compared to pre-industrial levels, rose by 1.5C, 2C, 4C, and 6C.

The climate scientist noted that some impacts of climate change were unavoidable.

"Even if we did stabilise global warming at 1.5C - which obviously is unbelievably ambitious and getting less and less unlikely all the time - even if we achieve that, then sea level would continue to rise to some extent," he explained.

Heat stress refugees

One of the climate consequence the Helix project looked at in depth, was a phenomenon called heat stress, which occurs when high temperature is combined with high levels of humidity.

"Because it's humid, you can't sweat. You can't cool your body by sweating," he said.

"In the rain forest it is very sweaty, and humid, so that's worse for your health, you get more heat stress," he noted.

Betts showed a map on his laptop which displayed the expected levels of heat stress across the world under different temperature scenarios.

Europe looked set to avoid most of it - which would make it a logical place for people to flee to.

"The issue there is all the other people coming to be in Europe because the rest of the world is becoming difficult to live in. Where are these people going to live?" said Betts.

He noted that whether the UN would 'note' or 'welcome' the report would not have a substantial impact.

"It's all politics, isn't it? … Obviously the research is still there and everyone knows about it," he said.

In fact, the snub by the fossil quartet may have actually encouraged other countries to push for more ambition, said Betts.

"I think there is something of a level of frustration, but perhaps also an increase in determination," he noted.

On Wednesday (12 December), a group of countries that call themselves the High Ambition Coalition said in a statement that the IPCC's findings "are a stark warning and serve as an urgent call to increase ambition and strengthen efforts to tackle climate change".

The countries supporting the statement said they were "determined to step up our ambition by 2020".

The statement was supported by the EU, Argentina, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, Ethiopia, Fiji, Finland, France, Germany, Grenada, Italy, Jamaica, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Marshall Islands, Mexico, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Saint Lucia, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile in Brussels

Meanwhile in Brussels, EU leaders are expected to address climate change in their written conclusions, to be adopted on Friday (14 December).

The text refers to a strategy paper recently published by the European Commission, which outlines scenarios towards a climate-neutral 2050.

A draft version of the conclusions said EU leaders called on their ministers "to work on the elements outlined in the [strategy paper] to enable the European Union to submit a long term strategy by 2020 in line with the Paris agreement".

It also said that the leaders would "provide guidance on the overall direction and political priorities" in the first six months of 2019.

An EU source noted that a debate on Friday was not expected, although that may change depending on how talks go in Katowice.

It is not unthinkable that EU leaders would adopt an extra sentence or two if they thought it could help their lead climate negotiator, EU commissioner Miguel Arias Canete, progress in the difficult talks.

At the previous EU summit in October, EU leaders had said in their conclusions that "further action is needed", although they did not commit to any new climate measures yet.

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