With the world facing the hottest global temperatures since the advent of record-keeping, 2016 was a year of accelerating international action to address climate change - though one ultimately capped by the US election of Donald Trump, who has called climate change “a hoax”.
What’s ahead on the climate change rollercoaster in 2017? The Thomson Reuters Foundation asked a range of experts to share what they’re watching - and what they think will make the headlines this year. Here are their top predictions:
Trump, China and changing climate leadership
The US Republican president-elect, who takes office on January 20, has indicated he plans to fill his cabinet with a hefty dose of friends of the country’s oil, gas and coal industries.
They include the outgoing head of ExxonMobil as head of the State Department, a former Texas governor and climate skeptic as head of energy, and a new environment protection chief who doubts climate change is human-caused and who has battled President Barack Obama’s effort to curb coal power plant emissions.
A growing number of US cities and companies say they plan to push ahead with ambitious plans to address global warming regardless of what happens in Washington.
And most countries that brought the global Paris Agreement to tackle climate change into force three years early in November similarly say they’re committed to pushing ahead.
But if the US government exits the global climate action stage under President Trump, that may open the way for new leadership - including by China, which has partnered with the United States in recent years to push international action on climate change.
“2017 could be the defining year when the United States cedes global leadership on tackling climate change to China, and more broadly the developed world cedes leadership to the developing world,” predicted Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) in Bangladesh.
China is already the world leader in producing renewable energy, and China’s Xi Jingping has said he’ll attend the World Economic Forum in Davos for the first time in 2017, and has raised climate change as an important issue in a meeting with new U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
“China’s prominence on the global stage is likely to raise interest in many capitals and the potential for shifts in the balance of power,” noted Liz Gallagher, a senior associate and director of the Climate Briefing Service at E3G, which focuses on climate diplomacy and energy policy.
2017 could be the defining year when the United States cedes global leadership on tackling climate change to China, and more broadly the developed world cedes leadership to the developing world.
Saleemul Huq, director, International Centre for Climate Change and Development
Could Europe also step into a climate leadership vacuum? With Brexit beginning to take shape, French elections looming and Germany’s Angela Merkel also standing in federal elections, it remains unclear - though with the region hosting both the G7 summit and the G20, the potential is there, experts say.
Migration and displacement
Boatloads of migrants, particularly from conflict-torn nations, continued to hit the shores of southern Europe in 2016, driving disagreements and political realignments in the region over how much of a welcome they should receive.
But potentially dwarfing those numbers in years to come could be migrants fleeing rising temperatures, more extreme weather and creeping sea level rise, warned Harjeet Singh, the global lead on climate change for charity ActionAid.
At the moment, those fleeing climate change pressures have no right to seek asylum as refugees, a reality that is unlikely to change, experts say.
But a new task force on displacement, being set up under the U.N. climate talks, is expected to begin its work this year looking at ways to “avert, minimise and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change”.
One of those may be finding better ways to predict and avoid climate disasters before they occur.
Humanitarian organisations from the World Food Programme to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are experimenting with getting money, food and other resources to areas where dangerous floods, for example, are forecast, giving people at risk the resources to prepare before disaster strikes.
The rise of geo-engineering
Scientists around the world start work this year on a special report, due out in 2018, on potential ways to hold average global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, an ambitious goal of the Paris Agreement to address climate change.
With that threshold likely to be passed in less than a decade, scientists say, there is growing talk of “geo-engineering” the planet to hold down temperatures.
That could involve blasting sulfur particles into the atmosphere to reflect sunshine, seeding oceans with iron to make them absorb more carbon, or turning more land to growing plants for fuel, then burning them and pumping the emissions into underground storage.
Such actions may be “almost unavoidable if we want to stay below 1.5 degrees” but could also have unexpected and potentially huge side effects, such as shifting crucial monsoon rains that billions rely on for food, said Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre.
Countries and people that might be hardest hit by geo-engineering impacts have so far had little say in decisions about their use, he said.
But a meeting this year on climate risk management, as part of the special report, should begin looking at the complex issue of who would need to be consulted if planet-wide geo-engineering is eventually deployed, van Aalst said.
Sources: E3G, Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, ActionAid, CARE International, 350.org, ICCCAD, International Institute for Environment and Development, Oxfam
This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate