the climate crisis

Image: Clive Kim


One of the topics that we have not discussed in these elections, but which will fall on us in the short term.

I intended to deal more generally with the theme of the environmental crisis, but there are so many elements to be worked on that it would not be an article, but a book. It would be important to address the crisis of biodiversity erosion, chemical contamination of soil, water and air, the loss of environmental services provided by ecosystems. Some of these themes will be dealt with in later articles, in reference to their impacts on agriculture and food production. In this article, the object is global warming, its ongoing impacts and those we can expect in the short and medium term.

Despite the fierce onslaught of various sectors of the world economy in his denialist discourse, for the thousands of scientists who have been meeting for at least two decades to assess global warming, the certainty is growing: human action is generating a process of growing emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) and the average temperature of the planet has been rising year after year, breaking successive records.

In 2015, well ahead of the date predicted by the first scientific predictions, the Earth's average temperature surpassed one degree Celsius above the levels of the beginning of the industrial revolution in the middle of the XNUMXth century. At first glance it doesn't look like much to a layman. After all, temperature fluctuations over the course of a year and even over the course of a day are much greater and we are used to them. The problem is that this extra degree is a world average and this means that all temperature swings have moved upwards.

Temperature increases are not uniform across the planet and this confounds the public's empirical observation. What has been happening are higher values ​​for the summer peaks and for the winter peaks. Experts say that we have entered the era of climate extremes where everything is “too much”. A lot of drought, a lot of rain, a lot of heat and a lot of cold. Lots of tornadoes and hurricanes. Lots of frosts and snowstorms. Lots of floods and lots of fires. The phenomena occur more frequently and with greater intensity.

Anyone who looks at the increase of one degree over a period of more than 170 years tends to think that this process is so slow that the next degree more in the world average will be lived by our great-great-grandchildren or even the great-great-grandchildren of our great-great-grandchildren. That's not how the band plays. The rise in temperature has been accelerating more and more over these 170 years.

The two-degree rise forecast was initially calculated for the middle of this century, if nothing is done to stop the warming process. This calculation has since been superseded by new, more rigorous and comprehensive research. The increase of this second degree is now being anticipated for the beginning of the thirties, a prediction still restricted to the most pessimistic analysts. Unfortunately, since this type of forecast has been made, it is the most pessimistic ones that have been confirmed over time. The same predictions point to an increase in temperature of 3º C by 2050 and 4º C by 2075, as long as we continue with the so-called “business as usual".

And the COPs? We are in number 27 and, until now, nothing that was decided there had even a slight impact on reality. The 1,5º C and 2º C targets of the agreements made with great fanfare, together with promises to cut GHG emissions “by half” and even the mythical “zero carbon emissions” they do not survive the return of politicians to their countries of origin.

The “culprits” for the permanent increase in greenhouse gas emissions are well known. There is a tendency to blame “humans”, in general, for causing global warming. A new terminology was adopted to talk about the era we are in in the history of the planet: now we would have left the Holocene to enter the Anthropocene, the era in which humans have more weight in the orientation or disorientation of the climate than natural phenomena. It would be more correct to name this era the capitalocene, the era of capitalism.

After all, the responsibilities for our crisis are very different, whether you are a family farmer in Kenya or a mega soybean planter in the Brazilian Midwest, for example. The consumption pattern of the richest defines the industrial and service demand, while the mega-companies, not only those that exploit fossil fuels, but all that use them to earn their profits, at the same time respond to and condition that demand.

On average, in each year of the decade 2011/2020, 35 billion tons of CO2 were emitted from the use of fossil fuels, while another 6 billion were emitted from changes in land use (deforestation and agricultural management). Of these 41 billion, 9 were dissolved in the oceans and 12 absorbed by forests and soils. That left 20 billion (yearly) that accumulated in the atmosphere. The growing world energy demand was answered essentially by the increase in the use of fossil fuels and, despite the increase in the supply of wind and solar energy, the two do not even scratch the weight eight times greater than the first ones. According to recent estimates, the supply of green energy would have to expand 10 times just to stop the increase in fossil energy use. And many more to replace it.

And what about the impacts of global warming? It is not something futuristic, the world is already experiencing these impacts that are getting worse every year. It is still necessary to remember that the increase in temperatures does not have an immediate effect on climatic phenomena. There is a delay between one and the other, variable according to the case. This has to do with the time it takes to warm up the huge masses of land and water on the planet. To give an example from the past, remember that the average planetary temperatures recorded today already occurred 130 years ago, in a brief warming period that lasted 15 years. At the end of the period, ocean levels were between 6 and 10 meters higher than they are now.

This bodes ill for humanity as it indicates that even if we stop warming at the level we are at, the lingering effect of higher temperatures could flood coastlines around the world. Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Recife and all the coastal cities in the country will, in this very likely hypothesis, be underwater. Entire countries will be flooded in their lower lands, the most dramatic cases (due to the concentration of populations in these areas) being India, Bangladesh and China. This dramatic future is still a long way off (but not that far) and our tendency is always to forget what is not immediate, but the effects of rising ocean levels will be felt, little by little, centimeter by centimeter, each year.

At COP 27, the island countries, which have been experiencing this problem for some time, are fighting for the rest of the world to help them. As? The pressure is on for accelerating measures to stop warming. But, if the example of the past is indicative of the future, even stopping global warming at 1,5º C will not prevent the disappearance of these islands. This fact, still little dramatized because it affects small nations with a small population, points to a much bigger problem, the creation of the category of climate refugees. And sea level rise is not going to be the most important factor in the multiplication of migrants fleeing intolerable conditions.

At present, the increasingly intense, prolonged and repeated droughts are already pushing hundreds of thousands of refugees to the countries better endowed by luck, either by their geography or by their economic conditions. For more than 20 years now, the number of migrants trying to reach Europe or the United States has been growing exponentially. There is a tendency in the world press to treat these cases as an emergency caused by wars or poverty, but behind these factors one discovers the impetus caused by increasingly adverse climatic factors.

The list of dramatic cases of repeated gigantic fires in recent decades is enormous and does not stop growing year after year. And this happens all over the planet, from Australia to Russia, from California to the south of France and the Iberian Peninsula, from Sudan to South Africa. In Brazil, fires are multiplying, but here the major factors are linked to human action, the criminal burnings caused by land grabbers and ranchers, in the Amazon, in the Pantanal, in the Cerrado, in the Caatinga and even in the tiny (nowadays) Atlantic Forest . But even here, it is clear that the fires caused by economic agents spread out of control due to the dryness of the vegetation and the high temperatures. We are not immune to the effects of global warming because we are even more stupid in our lack of control over the outbreaks.

Global warming causes the melting of permanent ice that still exists on the planet. This is happening at an accelerated pace in the Arctic and Greenland, where the “ice frontier” has been retreating year after year and faster and faster. The mass of fresh water produced by this melting ice injects billions of liters into marine currents and they are already beginning to change their speed and path. Without going into further explanations, which would be lengthy, this fact will cause climate change in Europe. The Gulf Stream, which carries warm water north from the Equator, makes the European climate milder than in areas of the same parallel in other parts of the world. The change in salinity caused by the melting of the Arctic and Greenland is driving the Gulf stream for the collapse. With less warm water on European coasts, the climate will cool down, affecting agriculture and the modus vivendi of Europeans. Here is an apparent paradox of global warming generating colder, in one place.

Melting is not limited to the “eternal ices” of the far north, but affects mountain glaciers around the world. In many cases, the survival of huge populations depends on the existence of these glaciers and the ice accumulated by winter blizzards that accumulate in the mountain ranges. Regular annual melting produces some of the most important rivers in the world, such as the Hindu and Ganges, tributaries of the temperatures in the Himalayan glaciers, or all the rivers of Peru, tributaries of the Andes, or even the water that circulates in the Colorado River, in California and that comes from the Sierra Nevada, among many others.

Less snow and less mountain ice is slowing river flows critical to agriculture and human sustenance in densely populated parts of the world. According to Pentagon analysts, this scenario is one of the factors to provoke (in the near future) what is already being called "water wars", with countries irrigated by the same rivers coming into conflict over their use as the available volume decreases. goes into decline.

It would take a separate chapter to point out the effects of warming, at current levels, on biodiversity. A wide variety of animals and plants are being subjected to changes, both in terms of minimum and maximum temperatures, as well as temporal changes that interfere with the evolution of these species. As many people already realize in everyday life, there are no longer the four seasons and the rainfall regime has also changed permanently. This causes, for example, fruit trees to flower out of season and abort their fruits when temperatures are not sustained.

On the other hand, the sowing dates of all cultivated plants are becoming totally uncertain and the frequency of crop failures due to very low or very high temperatures, or lack or excess of rain in the periods necessary for a good evolution of crops, is becoming an ongoing nightmare for farmers. On the other hand, the forests that still survive on the planet are threatened by changes in temperatures and rainfall. Experts point to the moment when the great forests will collapse and begin to regress, especially the tropical ones like the Amazon, heading towards becoming savannas and even deserts.

All this is happening right now, with only 1º C more than the beginning of the industrial age. With 2º C more in the bag, all this accelerates. And it's good to remember that the loss of the great tropical forests has a double effect: on the one hand they emit zillions of tons of carbon dioxide in the act of disappearing (by fire or for any other reason) and on the other hand they fail to absorb another as much CO2 while they are alive. That is, there is a double effect of accelerating the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, expanding the process of increasing global temperature.

Another dramatic effect of global warming is the multiplication of disease transmission vectors and the emergence of new highly dangerous viruses and bacteria for the human race. The COVID pandemic is an example that should make all those responsible for public policies at the national and international level think. At the present time, what can be observed is the expansion of certain diseases, starting from the warmer zones to the more temperate ones, as the latter warm up.

Dengue and chikungunya are contagious diseases typical of the tropics that are spreading northwards in both the United States and Europe. Deforestation, whether caused by warming or the direct action of loggers and farmers, has a more immediate effect on the emergence of new strains and new viruses and bacteria, but the background to global warming is an engine that accelerates impacts in general.

There are many other negative effects of the ongoing rise in global temperature, even if still limited to 1°C, that could be cited. I won't do it so I don't load this article too much. The IPCC reports are accessible on Google for anyone interested in studying the dramatic picture in which humanity is already inserted. But everything can get much worse if we exceed 2º C.

In order not to repeat all the impacts already mentioned, only showing that they will be even more devastating, I will limit myself to a fundamental aspect for the survival of humanity in the short term. I chose to show the effect on agricultural production of a 2ºC increase in the average temperature of the planet.

An increase of this level will provoke, according to a study published in the English magazine The Lancet, a global reduction in the availability of food of the order of 100 calories per person per day, raising the levels of malnutrition and malnutrition brutally, especially in the poorest countries. The study estimates approximately half a million extra deaths due to hunger each year. Other studies consider that the journal's numbers are underestimated. They indicate that corn production, for example, would suffer a reduction of around 100 million tons per year, that is, more or less the totality of corn traded internationally today. Projected losses for other crops are also heavy: 6% of wheat production, 3% of rice, 7% of soybeans.

These studies only take into account the effect of higher temperatures on plant development. Global warming of 2º C is expected to trigger an explosion of new and old pests with losses of around 25% of crops. The effects of rainfall instability and oscillations between droughts and floods were also not included. We are on our way to a world where hunger will grow at an accelerated pace, leading to social and political instability and the already mentioned waves of climate refugees, mainly from Africa, Central America, the Middle East and parts of South America.

It is always said that God is Brazilian and that he will protect us. As the Lord will be very busy in the rest of the world, it will be difficult to avoid a national catastrophe. National studies indicate high losses in our main crops with the increase in temperature to 2º C, above the levels of 170 years ago. These studies have not yet incorporated the threat posed by the elimination or sharp reduction in the flow of the so-called “flying rivers”, which transport moisture from the Amazon forest to the center-west, southeast and south of the country. The flow of the “non-flying” rivers will also be strongly affected and both irrigation and the supply of populations and the generation of electricity will be reduced. It will remain for us, for some time, to explore the great Guarani aquifer, if the process of contamination by pesticides, which is already occurring, does not lead to its destruction.

This terrifying picture is actually still partial and relatively optimistic. And it's better not to look for what will happen if the numbers don't stop at 2º C and climb to 3 and 4º C. The tendency of the general public is, instinctively, to refuse to believe. This psychological reaction does not have the same nature as the denialism of companies, in particular those that exploit fossil fuels. Everyone, even many people who are convinced, in whole or in part, of the threats we are subject to, tend to postpone the problem for a future moment, not least because they don't see what to do to avoid the catastrophe. Time runs against humanity and we cannot afford to quibble or postpone facing the threat.

For us Brazilians, who are getting rid of the environmental and climate denialism that was in power for four years, we have gained space to do what has to be done. In the first place, and this Lula has already promised for the Amazon, there is zero deforestation in all biomes. Lula also promised to reforest “degraded areas”. As he spoke of 100 million hectares, he must be referring to some specific biome because, in national terms, this number almost doubles. We're going to need strong financial support from the first world because we don't have the resources for all that.

Stopping deforestation (and the contamination of rivers by mining) in the Amazon will be a war operation and I hope that Lula knows what he is getting into. The area where these illegal operations are concentrated is beyond the control of the State and has a population of hundreds of thousands of desperate workers who bet their lives on this economy of destruction. And they are, as has been seen more than once, armed and daring, with the sponsorship of drug trafficking organizations. It will be necessary to give alternative income to the workers or they will become the base of fighters, defending the profits of the big fish.

These proposals will go down very well in Sharm-el Sheik. But they do not resolve (nor do they scratch) the resolution of the problem caused by the generation of greenhouse gases by the oil industry and all enterprises that depend on derivatives to operate. And this, the high rapioca that gathered in Egypt, is not willing to face. It would be something spectacular if Brazil adopted a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions beyond deforestation and fires and set an example for the world. We should open a debate on reducing the use of oil and gas in Brazil and set robust targets for this purpose.

How to do that will be a key issue for this government, to know if it is just tidying up the flowers in the cemetery or seeking to reverse the logic of the collapse of our world. And as a first step, Lula should commit to the principle of progressive elimination of the use of fossil fuels. The way to proceed is the second step, but it will only exist after the first.

*Jean Marc von der Weid is a former president of the UNE (1969-71). Founder of the non-governmental organization Family Agriculture and Agroecology (ASTA).

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