Look beyond COP26 summit to real world for climate action, says top UK scientist

Real action to stem potentially “unmanageable” climate threats is coming from outside the UN climate change negotiations, says David King.

crew of US coast guard
The crew of the US Coast Guard Cutter Healy retrieves supplies dropped by parachute in the Arctic Ocean in this. Image: REUTERS/Kathryn Hansen/NASA

When scientist David King looks at the dramatic climate shifts already emerging around the world — from sweltering North Pole summer heat to deadly flooding — he thinks any deal reached at the UN climate talks this week may be “too little, too late”.

The conference’s overarching aim is to “keep 1.5 alive” — a reference to the Paris Agreement goal to pursue efforts to limit average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial times.

But that “isn’t happening”, said King, Britain’s former chief scientist and special representative for climate change.

National emissions-cutting plans submitted ahead of the talks are nowhere near in line with what scientists say is needed, he noted.

A leading tracker for national climate policies this week said the world will hit 2.4 degrees Celsius of warming this century under the current plans — if they are fulfilled.

“We’re at 1.25 degrees (of temperature rise) today and it’s already too much,” said King, who has now founded the Climate Crisis Advisory Group, a panel of experts established to provide quick advice to governments and others on climate change.

With the negotiations still struggling to back the transformations needed to wrest the world onto a clean energy path and help communities deal with deadly climate shifts, real change is largely now being driven from the outside, he said.

That includes more high-impact lawsuits, big protests, efforts to establish new global institutions to deal with climate threats, key innovations and - nearest to his heart — “willing nations acting to deliver the solutions we need”.

They include backers of Mission Innovation, a global initiative that aims to make clean energy “affordable, attractive and accessible for all”.

“We’re imitative in our behaviour. If we find others doing it, we can do it,” predicted King, 83, founder of the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge, in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of the Glasgow talks.

Falling short

Many of the avalanche of net-zero emissions commitments that have emerged at the COP26 summit are “quite cynical” and will not translate into real action, the scientist warned.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, for instance, has pledged his country will reach net-zero by 2050 but without limiting the use of fossil fuels, including coal, which means “there’s a very clear contradiction there”, King said.

Similarly, when Brazil’s president “says he will protect the Brazilian rainforest and get to net zero, it’s in absolute contradiction to everything he’s doing there”, King said, with deforestation having soared since Jair Bolsonaro took office.

A raft of pledges at the talks have “debased the currency of the term net zero”, King added.

US President Joe Biden’s criticism of China’s premiere for not attending the talks was also not helpful, he added, noting that while some of it was valid, “this is the wrong time”.

“The world is in a terrible situation and we can’t afford to be pointing fingers,” he warned.

Meanwhile, Biden is struggling to get his ambitious climate legislation through a US Congress that remains too much in the grip of fossil fuel lobbyists, King said.

Restoring ice

King’s Centre for Climate Repair has some ambitious and even wild-sounding ideas for real-world climate action.

They include putting 700 to 1,000 ships in the Arctic each winter to spray seawater into the air, which would fall as ice, slowly rebuilding the region’s vanishing ice pack.

The effort, which would cost about US$2 billion a year, could help reflect the sunshine now warming the ice-free summer Arctic, potentially curbing permafrost melt and more brutal heat and cold extremes far from the Arctic, among other things.

“It’s a short-term measure while we have deep and rapid emissions cuts,” King said. “It’s a process of buying time.”

He would like to see a new UN Security Council for Climate Change created to tackle the global threat, but admitted, “we don’t have the time to go through the process of establishing it”, given the urgency of cutting emissions.

Protests by activist groups like Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion are “an important part” of accelerating climate action, as are a range of new legal decisions, he said.

Germany’s federal constitutional court, for instance, ruled earlier this year that the government’s climate plan was unconstitutional because it shifted too much of the burden of reducing emissions to future generations.

A Netherlands court similarly this year found oil giant Shell liable for damaging the climate, ordering a steep 45 per cent reduction in its emissions by 2030, compared to 2019 levels.

While complex negotiations struggle on in the halls at COP26, “an awful lot is happening in the moment” outside them, King said. That is crucial as evidence piles up on how swiftly climate threats are growing, he added.

Scientists are re-analysing flood risks around the world, for instance, and now fear as much as 90 per cent of Vietnam’s key rice-growing deltas could be flooded annually by 2050 if temperatures keep rising on their current path, King said.

“That’s just 30 years away,” he pointed out.

In July, King spoke by phone with Tero Mustonen, an indigenous Sami member of his Climate Crisis Advisory Group, who reported that the temperature that day in his part of Arctic Finland had hit 32C (90 degrees Fahrenheit).

“He was in tears” at the implications of such dramatic temperature shifts, King remembered.

Worsening threats - from floods, storms and heatwaves to fires and other impacts — will be both deadly and costly, he said, driving everything from more migration to higher hunger.

“I don’t believe the global economy could possibly manage that,” he said. “If we don’t do something, we have no manageable future.”

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate.

Like this content? Join our growing community.

Your support helps to strengthen independent journalism, which is critically needed to guide business and policy development for positive impact. Unlock unlimited access to our content and members-only perks.

Most popular

Featured Events

Publish your event
leaf background pattern

Transforming Innovation for Sustainability Join the Ecosystem →