Global climate awareness soars but world still far off course on actions, scientists say

Professor Mark Howden (left), director for the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University, and Professor Jim Skea of the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London speaking to the media on the sidelines of a meetin
Professor Mark Howden (left), director for the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University, and Professor Jim Skea of the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London speaking to the media on the sidelines of a meeting of the United Nations' climate panel in Singapore on Oct 22, 2019.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

SINGAPORE - After years of warnings from scientists, global awareness of the growing threat of climate change and the need to urgently cut planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions have finally clicked into place.

Two leading climate scientists told The Straits Times that global protests by young people, record weather extremes, and a series of groundbreaking scientific reports have helped drive the change.

"The planets have aligned around the climate change issue and the drive for climate change action," said Professor Jim Skea of the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London on the sidelines of an Oct 21-25 meeting of the United Nations' climate panel in Singapore.

The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, in which nearly 200 nations agreed to limit warming to well below 2 deg C and aim for 1.5 deg C, really shifted the dial, he said.

So did three special reports from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) over the past 12 months which explained in great detail the consequences of climate change on societies as well as the solutions.

"And we've seen very high levels of social actions, with the children's climate strikes. Each one has fed off the other and I think it's the combination of these factors that has led to quite a substantial change," said Prof Skea, a co-chair of the IPCC's Working Group III, which looks at ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Since 1988, the IPCC has progressively warned of the growing threat from climate change based on analysis of updated scientific findings every five to six years.

But it was the three special reports over the past year that generated perhaps the most media attention because they looked in great detail at areas vital to ordinary people.

The first report looked at the impacts of warming of 1.5 deg C versus 2 deg C, and showed that even small increases in temperature can make a huge difference to crop production, sea level rise and damage to coral reefs.

The next report on land exposed how mankind's food production is wasteful, destructive and is a huge producer of greenhouse gas emissions, and how changes in diets can make a big difference.

The last report on oceans and the ice-covered parts of the planet revealed the enormous threat from faster melting of ice caps and glaciers to millions of people living along coastlines and on low-lying islands.


Rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels could reduce the risks.

"The 1.5 degrees report really emphasised the urgency of the issue and how little time we have to reduce our emissions if we are to stay below 1.5," said Prof Mark Howden, an IPCC vice-chair and director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University in Canberra.

"The second report, the land report, emphasised how it was impacting on our daily lives through things like dietary choices and our health as a result of that.

"But it also really emphasised there was a whole series of potential win-win solutions here. And so it wasn't just a negative message but also a positive message."

Prof Howden said the special reports highlighted a range of impacts that were stark and deeply worrying.

"What we've seen is the increasing documentation of change in so many different areas. Some of them are the incredibly rapid breakdown of ice sheets globally.

"This is on Greenland, in West Antarctica and starting to be in East Antarctica as well. And as a result of that, plus melting of glaciers, we are seeing an acceleration of sea level rise, and that's going up and up and faster over time."

He also pointed to increasing ocean acidity as seas soak up more carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas, as well as more powerful waves.

"And also potentially increasing energy of the very serious cyclones and typhoons we experience. The damage associated with those big storms increases exponentially with wind speed. These things add up together so they are not individual impacts but they converge into a significant increase in risk."


The IPCC is meeting this week in Singapore for the first time. Altogether, 80 scientists from 38 nations have gathered to scope out the structure of a major report to be released in 2022, bringing together the three special reports, plus three other reports from the IPCC's three working groups which will be published in 2021.

Prof Skea said countries volunteering to host an IPCC meeting normally attached "quite a big importance to the issue of climate change and is concerned about climate change action".

"So I think the fact that Singapore offered probably symbolises Singapore's awakening interest in the issue of climate change."


Globally, though, the world is far from the deep cuts needed, with CO2 emissions hitting another record last year.

Global average temperatures have reached 1.1 deg C since pre-industrial times, according to the UN's World Meteorological Organisation in a recent report.

United States President Donald Trump has said he wants to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement, while Australia wants to keep investing in polluting coal mining to boost exports.

Prof Skea and Prof Howden said that while the world was far from where it needed to be, there were positive signs.

"There's a lot more to be done," said Prof Skea. "But that doesn't mean all is lost because we have seen a lot of changes in countries already and lots of positive signs.

"The cost of renewable energy has fallen dramatically and we've seen a very rapid uptake in renewables that is probably faster than anybody had anticipated."

But he said people need the right kinds of policies to support choices that encourage greener living, for example, those that support the switch to public transport.

What is also key is a better understanding of the financial benefits of climate action.

Prof Howden said: "There's an emerging narrative that moves us away from action being a cost, to action potentially being a gain.

"We can demonstrate examples right now where choices that are made to either reduce emissions or adapt to climate change are already benefiting particular companies," he said, pointing to switching to renewable energy or electric vehicles.

"So we need to nuance the discussion not only associated with potential costs but also with the benefits that arise from effective action."