Code Red for Humanity and the Planet
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is absolutely right to
call the latest UN climate report a “Code Red for Humanity.” Without immediate
and serious action, we are condemning future generations to a dismal future.
Already, we have wasted too much time. Next year, it will be
half a century since first UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm
warned us of the risks to our environment from human activities. More than 30 years have passed since the UN’s
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its first report (the
latest report is its sixth). Even that first report in 1990 warned of
humanity’s impact on greenhouse gas concentrations and planetary warming. Again, our actions over subsequent decades
have been woefully inadequate.
This year has given us the most vivid insights into what the
new world will look like, whether it is droughts and fires in California or the
latest tragic wildfires in Greece, as temperatures get so hot that even a small
spark sets them off.
The IPCC report also looks at heat waves. If we were to permit
a 2 °C increase in temperature, then the
record temperatures recorded recently in the United States and unexpectedly in Canada
would become 14 times more likely to happen again in future, both there and
There has already been an increase in the number and the
strength of. Flooding is happening more often and again in places not expected
as rain falls in a different way to how it did before These heavy downpours,
most recently in Germany, show that the flood defenses were built for a
different type of downpour and will required huge infrastructural overhauls if
this is to be the new normal.
Then there is the cascading effect if the forests and
vegetation have burnt down. When the rain comes again there is now nothing to
hold the water back, meaning floods will have a greater impact on already
The key here is water. The UN’s climate negotiations only
added water as a key issue to the negotiations in 2010 due to campaigning by
the multi stakeholder efforts of the Water and Climate Coalition. The approach
to greenhouse targets missed a huge opportunity to address the key sectors that
were either contributing to the problem or would be impacted by it.
No Minor Injuries
Why are so many political leaders either in denial about the
need for urgent action, or simply paying it lip service? The current sense of
denial is unsettlingly reminiscent of the comedy film Monty Python and the
Holy Grail. In one painfully funny scene, a mysterious dark knight bars the
path of our hero, King Arthur. The two fight and King Arthur expects the knight
to stand aside when he cuts off the knight’s arm. But the knight refuses,
claiming at first that it is merely a “scratch”. The fight resumes and the
knight loses his other arm. Again, he refuses to submit or step aside, claiming
it is “just a flesh wound.”
This is where we stand with climate change. Already, we have
inflicted great injuries on our planet and we need to respond accordingly. We
cannot pretend the globe has just suffered a few minor cuts and scrapes. If our
world was the dark knight, you could argue that we have, through our actions,
already severed a limb. We must cease our attacks and treat this as a global
emergency for our global health. No band aid solution or plastering over the
damage will do. Inaction will not cut it.
In a health emergency, time is of the essence. You cannot
wait to call an ambulance or try to carry on as normal. If you do, the patient
may not survive. The IPCC’s latest report shows we must act immediately and
take the strongest action possible.
A Call to Action
So, what can be done with the UN IPCC’s new warning?
First, those countries that have not yet submitted new
Nationally Determined Contribution targets under the UN’s Paris agreement should
do so immediately.
Secondly, developed countries should increase their contribution
promised in 2015 for funding from $100 billion a year for climate work to at
least $200 billion by the Climate Summit in Egypt in 2022.
Thirdly, and even more importantly, governments need to aggressively
focus on the corporate sector and its responsibilities. This should include
making it a requirement for all companies listed on any Stock Exchange to have
to produce their sustainability strategy and their Environmental, Social and
Governance Report (ESG) every year. This should be a requirement for remaining
on the stock exchange. This should also require them to produce science-based targets
to achieve net zero greenhouse gases by 2050. Companies’ voluntary,
self-created goals are no longer sufficient.
Perhaps it is even worth considering having Stock Exchanges
publish the total carbon of their members and to start considering them putting
a cap on what the Exchange would allow and what their contribution to net zero
Fourthly, the role of local and sub-national governments
needs to be supported and enhanced. Actors at the local and regional levels are
critical to delivering what we need. They need to be supported to set their own
2030 targets and 2050 net zero strategies. To enable them to achieve this, central
governments will need to support them and provide the extra funding. All
planning decisions should be based on the new projections of climate change and
building in flood plains should stop.
Fifthly, governments should review the impacts on climate change
of all existing policies and not proceed unless they are within the strategy to
deliver the NDC and the 2030 and 2050 Net Zero strategies. In short,
governments need to start incorporating climate change into all of their
thinking across all sectors. The problem is too vast, and too urgent, to do
Sixthly, all governments need to urgently review their
disaster risk reduction strategies ahead of a major UN conference on this
subject scheduled for next May in Bali.
At all levels of government we need to review the
interlinkages between water, agriculture, energy and climate change to ensure
that planning is climate proofed. Without accounting for each of these sectors,
the solutions will not be big enough to meet the challenge.
Finally, as voters, taxpayers and citizens, we need to press
our political leaders to put climate change at the top of their list of
priorities. They need to be reminded that it is not just future generations
that will judge them and their policies—we can do so, too.
A Code Red Emergency
We have a decade to turn this around. Already, we have seen global
temperatures rise by 1.09 °C. The
IPCC suggests we may pass the all-important threshold of 1.5 °C by 2034 to 2040.
In fact, things may be even more pressing. The report that
came out on Monday was the “summary for policymakers”, which means it was a
negotiated document with both progressive nations and more climate sceptic and
cautious countries negotiating the exact wording. While the findings were certainly
scientifically sound, it is quite likely the language could have been—and
probably should have been—even more urgent. We would do well to remember what some
politicians have said over the last few years; if they have denied the science in
the past then now is surely the time for them make way for others who are
willing to give this issue the weight it so clearly deserves.
Felix Dodds is an Adjunct Professor at the Water Institute
at the University of North Carolina where he is a Principal Investigator for
the Belmont funded Re-Energize project. He co-coordinated the Water and Climate
Change Coalition at the Climate Negotiations (2007-2012). His new book is Tomorrow’s People and New
Technology: Changing How We Live Our Lives (October 2021).