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Putin’s cannons obscure urgent summons on climate

(NASA, public domain)
(NASA, public domain)

Among the silent casualties of Vladmir Putin’s Ukraine adventure is the eclipse of a critical report prepared by the Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability Working Group (WGII) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Released during the first days of the invasion, the Summary for Policymakers was effectively sidelined by the ensuing upheaval. The document constitutes a vital roadmap and carries an urgent message: Preventing the most calamitous climate change impacts is still possible, but only if governments everywhere collaboratively institute widescale change within the brief window of opportunity that remains.

In their report last month, the WGII experts elaborate on what society has to do to meet the challenges described in the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (August 2021). IPCC assessments have been issued approximately every six years since 1990 and serve as updates of the scientific understanding of climate change and its impacts. Among the Sixth Assessment’s most forceful findings was the “unequivocal” conclusion that human activities are the primary driver of global warming. Unless the relevant practices are corrected, conditions necessary for planetary life will deteriorate sharply.

The recent Adaptation statement avers that the causes, impacts and solutions to climate change are inextricable from those affecting “coupled systems,” specifically the planet’s declining biological endowment and ecosystems (the loss of species and their habitats) and modern economy’s deleterious impacts on the natural environment, including contamination of air, water and soil, deforestation and other land use conversion and the rapacious mining of resources. These effects, in turn, now threaten food and water security, heighten public health risks, and generate extreme climate events. In other words, confronting global warming is not just a question of lowering greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions: Multiple drivers intrinsic to the global economy and its use of natural resources must be revised without delay.

Specifically, unconstrained consumption, mounting waste generation, the reckless economic exploitation of terrestrial, marine and riverine environments along with fossil fuel use must be abandoned and replaced with more sustainable practices. Continuing with “business as usual” will heighten the risks of such impacts as floods, droughts, heat waves, cold spells, wildfires, soil loss and water scarcity. The Adaptation Report notes that these already evident trends will create vulnerability everywhere as infrastructure fails, homes and buildings prove inadequate against thermal and other environmental stress, health systems become strained by disease outbreaks, and the supply of essential goods are disrupted.

The February 2022 report makes clear that vulnerability is steadily rising and societies across the world. To contend with mounting impacts, resource scarcity and other environmental stressors requires a two-pronged strategy: mitigation (ex., halving fossil fuel use by 2030 and then eliminating it; reversing deforestation and restoring ecosystems) and adaptation, that is preparing for the consequences of the damage already inflicted on earth systems (for instance, fortifying coastal defenses and developing climate-adaptive crops and infrastructure).

Climate scientists believe that if we cap temperature rise to 1.5 o C by 2050, the worse effects can be avoided. Anything beyond that will result in planetary “overshoot” and inflict “irreversible impacts” on polar, mountain and coastal regions with serious consequences for human, ecosystem and planetary health elsewhere

The economic and social implications of overshoot will be dire and far larger than the costs of taking proactive action now. Building resilience to global change shocks will necessitate both adaptive mechanisms and transitioning to sustainable systems. Achieving the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set in 2015 by the UN and which were to be attained by 2030 are key to climate resilience. The pandemic significantly set back the achievement of these goals. Nonetheless, the Adaptation Report cites the 2030 date deadline as critical: Either the transition to the SDGs is well underway by then or a bleak future awaits us all, rich and poor alike.

So far, governments and the private sector have not risen to the challenge. According to a recent study, the hope that the global experience in confronting Covid-19 would prove to be a turning point and that the economic recovery would be directed toward meeting sustainability targets has not been realized. Of the $14 trillion that the governments of the G-20 countries have pledged to compensate for pandemic-related economic and related damage, a mere seven percent was designated for climate-related objectives, mainly for mitigation (cutting fossil fuel emissions).

Israel’s record on both climate change mitigation and adaptation is less than satisfactory. According to the State Comptroller’s scathing special audit report released last October, Israel is one of the few countries in the world that does not act based on a national adaptation plan that is budgeted and approved” despite it being in “’hot spot’” (high-risk area), and thus even more exposed to climate change risks.” Worst, the comptroller found that “climate change is not part of the national threat map.…Israel has not yet internalized the risks posed by climate change to the economy and financial system.” While some ministries are beginning to formulate policy responses to the global crises and despite a flurry of conferences and briefs, government action is tentative and halting.

Israel along with the rest of the world is at a pivotal moment in history: Either we move speedily to create sustainable economies or our survival and that of future generations is endangered. The threats are universal: No country is immune from the effects of a degraded environment nor can any be exempted from taking far-reaching and immediate action.

The international revulsion elicited by the Russian aggression and the punitive measures mobilized across political lines, whether sufficient or not, are encouraging: They suggests that concerted international action in response to a common challenge can be summoned. Applying even greater unanimity and resolve to overcome the planetary crisis would be a fitting repudiation of Mr. Putin’s barbaric and revanchist foray into Ukraine.

About the Author
Dr. Yosef Gotlieb is a specialist in international development and climate change adaptation. His books include Self-Determination in the Middle East, Development, Environment and Global Dysfunction and, most recently, Rise, A Novel of Contemporary Israel. Dr. Gotlieb directs the Program in Editing and Editorial Analysis at David Yellin College of Education in Jerusalem.
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