Even as the UN climate negotiations (COP 25) began in Madrid on December 2, India is trying to fight its way out of drought, deluge, extreme weather and a crippling drop in its GDP, all delivered at once, just the way climate change impacts are expected to be delivered. But while India is experiencing what it means to be among the countries most vulnerable to climate impacts, scientists have warned that the world risks breaching dreaded ‘tipping points’ in the earth system much sooner than expected. The concept of tipping points was introduced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change about 20 years ago as physical limits across natural systems such as polar ice shelves, rainforest areas and oceans, breaching which could cause irreversible changes in natural cycles and processes. Now, according to a research comment published in the journal Nature, nine such thresholds are already active and in danger of being breached could culminate in an ‘existential threat to civilization’.
The warning was timely as it came in the run up to the COP25 where delegates from governments around the world have gathered to continue negotiations on finalising the rule book to implement the Paris Agreement. The comment adds to the increasing urgency being expressed by scientists following three IPCC report releases over the past year and findings that show CO2 concentrations rising again in 2018-19. Given that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is rooted in scientific findings and the process was designed to be progressively reactive to the changing state of scientific knowledge, one would imagine worrying scientific observations and warnings resounding through the corridors of the COP. In reality though, there hasn’t been much more than a whimper of acknowledgement on offer.
Sample this: The ice sheets of the Arctic, Antarctica and Greenland, and the Amazon rainforest are undergoing unprecedented changes much earlier than what had been predicted. Scientists have called for an emergency response to reduce emissions in order to prevent a worst-case scenario of earth turning into a ‘hothouse’ and triggering a cascade of changes in atmospheric, oceanic, terrestrial and cryospheric systems that regulate earth’s natural processes that would lead to self-amplification of global warming. Observed trends across systems show that this is happening now, already at 1°C warming.
Unprecedented changes are now becoming the norm. Nowhere has this become clearer than in India. The country’s financial capital Mumbai received the most rain this year in 65 years. Chennai is inundated the same year when it faced a severe water crisis. The monsoon has destroyed 40% of oilseeds crops in central and western India- regions which have also been declared as being under “extremely high water stress”. A deadly flood arrived on the back of a deadly drought in Bihar. After its fourth ‘hottest summer’ in a row, the country went through the wettest September in the past 100 years. In 2019, 1,600 people died in floods in India, despite being in the midst of long-term declines in annual rainfall. India, this year, was also declared “the country with the biggest increase in population exposure to wildfires.”
In what seems to be a post ‘tipping points’ backdrop for several vulnerable countries, especially small island nations struggling to keep their heads above the rising seas, the UN Climate Action Summit in September represented hope that new alarming scientific findings would translate to higher ambition from big emitters. By the end, it was clear that only disappointment would be on offer as science played merely a cameo in how nations aligned their ambitions to the required scale of action.
The side-lining of science has been on ongoing pursuit, especially for the US, since the early days of climate negotiations, mainly at the behest of energy and fossil fuel companies which have traditionally seen climate action as a death knell for the industry. Still, even until a decade ago, the undermining of science mostly fell to non-state actors such as the 2009 hacking of a server of at the Climate Research Unit at the East Anglia University. Thousands of documents and confidential correspondence were leaked and cherry picked to “prove” climate scientists were using manipulated data to push the spectre of catastrophic climate change. While the charges were unfounded after multiple independent audits found there to be no evidence of malpractice, the anti-science sentiment in negotiating halls has only become stronger- particularly among big oil producing nations.
The matter came to head in early 2014 when Saudi Arabia- prominent among nations actively blocking the incorporation of scientific findings in the negotiation process, was caught manipulating the text of the then yet-to-be-released Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC to mask their own contributions to rising GHG levels. While at the time the Saudis attempted to evade accusations of any manipulations, their attempts (along with the US, their partners-in-crime) at suppressing scientific findings have only become more brazen over the past few years.
By 2017, funding for the IPCC through the UNFCCC core budget was no longer a given and was a matter of intense deliberation before finally being sanctioned. The battle against science resumed last year at the COP 24 in Katowicz, Poland as the Saudis, joined by Russia and the US, cast doubts on the alarming findings presented in the IPCC Special Report on 1.5 °C and blocked its inclusion in the preparation of the Paris Agreement rule book. At the same time, independent reports from prominent think tanks in the US casting doubts on climate modelling and the findings were presented as a counter to IPCC findings in order to further muddy the waters. The fight continued on to the intersessional COP in Bonn, Germany earlier this year where smaller island nations pushed hard to include last year’s IPCC report on how the world could limit temperature rise to 1.5°C this century by making drastic emission cuts. But the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait wanted the uncertainties in the report to be highlighted, much like they did in COP 24 in Katowice. The result? After much debate, a compromise text was agreed upon where the report was noted and the IPCC was thanked for providing the “best available science”. This was well short of what many at the talks were expecting.
Two more IPCC reports, along with a host of other scientific studies and observations, published since COP24 have once again brought attention to the unsustainable state of play and the need for urgent carbon cutbacks. But one would be hard-pressed to find any indication of this urgency in climate talks as science has been further relegated to the fringes of the negotiating process-which has centred around issues of wording while demands to increase ambition have largely fallen on deaf ears. This year, the battle for funding will resume and we will find out if science is on its way out of the negotiating process for good as the UNFCCC will decide on its core budget for the year 2020-21. Battling a fund crunch, the UN body has proposed a 26% increase in funding but has also included a ‘net-zero increase’ budget that would see funding for IPCC- the scientific arm of the UNFCCC, cut to zero which would further be death blow to scientists who have gradually been nudged out of the picture. The decision on the budget, to be taken on , December 13, the final day of COP 25, will undoubtedly be crucial for the continuation of the scientific legacy of the process and for the drafting of policies that are in line with observed realities. The consequences of eliminating science could be chilling for a process that was explicitly designed to follow and incorporate scientific findings in a progressive fashion. Even when functioning as intended, climate policy has typically followed behind scientific findings with a lag of 5-10 years when it comes to prescribed actions. At a time when scientists are warning of fast approaching doom, the side-lining of scientific findings once again underlines the transition of climate negotiations from being about environmental sustainability to being about economic protectionism. With the elimination of science from the talks, negotiators are missing the woods for the trees, and the price would be for all to bear.