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By Bill McGuire
This summer our world has been battered like never before by extreme weather. North America has sweltered in temperatures that peaked at a staggering 54.4C, while an area the size of Lebanon, along with thousands of homes, has been incinerated by wildfires that continue to rage across many states. Temperature records were smashed in Europe, with 48.8°C registered in Sicily and 47.2C in southern Spain as, further north, devastating flash floods took more than 220 lives in Germany and Belgium.
Wildfires have rampaged out of control across Greece and Turkey, while unprecedented rainfall and flooding has left a trail of destruction and loss of life across Turkey, China, Japan, India and parts of the United States. In Siberia, the tundra is in flames, pumping out huge volumes of carbon dioxide. Probably most disturbingly – for the first time ever recorded – rain has fallen on the highest point of the Greenland Ice Sheet.
The truth is that our climate is broken, and this is what it looks like. As the world continues to heat up in response to the 40 billion or so tonnes of carbon dioxide pumped out by human activities every year, things can only get worse.
So far, the average global temperature has climbed around 1.1°C since pre-industrial times, but we are on track to more than double this in the decades to come, unless we take urgent action now. Should the worst-case forecasts come to pass, temperatures could be 4 – 5°C higher by the century’s end, bringing an existential threat to our civilisation.
There is now nowhere to hide from our plight. Well-timed to coincide with the increasingly extreme weather we can see all around us, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just published its scariest report yet. While the previous five climate assessment reports have been conservative and consensus-based, this latest pulls few punches. In a nutshell, it concludes that the global average temperature rise will breach both the 1.5C and 2C ‘guardrails’, unless there are deep cuts to emissions in coming decades. As this is extremely unlikely, we have to face the fact that we are now committed to dangerous, all-pervasive climate change.
The bottom line, then, is that we are in dire straits. We know that, whatever we do, the world our children will grow old in, and our grandchildren grow up in, will be hotter, increasingly unpredictable, and more dangerous than the one we have become used to. We have a duty, therefore, to do everything in our power to stop the situation getting even worse. This means, more than anything else, stopping the extraction and use of fossil fuels as soon as possible.
Lloyd’s of London, the world’s biggest insurance market, has announced that it will set a market-wide policy to stop new insurance cover for coal, oil sands and Arctic energy projects in just 16 months time. It will also phase out existing policies for all fossil-fuel related projects by 2030, pulling out of the sector entirely by this date.
This is a major and most welcome decision. No investor is going to risk large amounts of dosh in a project with no insurance cover. But, in terms of climate breakdown, 2030 is a lifetime away. On the basis of current trends, we will have pumped into the atmosphere a further 360 or more billion tonnes by this date, likely pushing the global average temperature rise beyond the 1.5C guardrail.
So, we need to do more now, in particular to cut another fossil fuel corporation lifeline – investment. Without money to develop and exploit further reserves, the industry will wither on the branch and die. In recent years, the movement to disinvest – to starve fossil fuel companies of the oxygen of money – has grown hugely, and institutions controlling more than USD14 trillion have wholly or partly withdrawn funds. But there remain many more institutions with investments in the sector who have failed to do so. One of these is the Church of England. This is wrong.
More than any other institution, the Church should be setting an example for others – Christian or not – to follow. Unfortunately, it still has a long way to go. Currently, the Church of England has committed to disinvesting from fossil fuel companies by the end of 2023, but only if companies are not prepared to align their plans with the 2015 Paris Climate Accord and a zero carbon future. This, however, is simply not good enough. There is absolutely no way a corporation whose product is burnt to produce carbon can ever meet these goals, whatever words they may utter in public.
The height of a climate emergency is not the time for provisos and conditions. The Church of England must act to disinvest from all fossil fuel companies. And it must do so now. Furthermore, individual churches also need to urgently evaluate any links they might have with the fossil fuel sector, and cut them as soon as they can. You can find out more about how to do this by joining Operation Noah’s BrightNow: towards fossil-free churches campaign, and I urge you to do so immediately.
There is simply no time to waste.
Our world stands on the edge of climate catastrophe. We know now that things will be bad, but that doesn’t mean we have to give up. There is still time to limit the consequences of global heating and climate breakdown, but we need to act immediately. Any failure to do so now will commit our children and their children to life on a deadly hothouse planet sweltering beneath carbon-soaked skies.
Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at UCL, and was a contributor to the 2012 IPCC SREX report on climate change and extreme events. His novel, SKYSEED – an eco-thriller about climate engineering gone wrong – is published by The Book Guild.