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Call for urgent action now as reality hits home

By ILIESA TORA

Nuku’alofa – June 21, 2021: 10am (Nuku’alofa Times): The United States of America is serious about playing its part in the work to achieve the Paris Agreement targets under the leadership of President Joe Biden.

This was restated by Mr Jonathan Pershing, the Senior Advisor to the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change, John Kerry in a briefing to foreign journalists who were part of a Foreign Virtual Tour organized by the US State Department and the Washington Foreign Press Center on May 11.

“The Biden team has been in for just over three months, almost four months now, and the framework had a couple of different pieces.  The President announced early in his term, and certainly ran in part on this as a campaign platform, that he intended to really take seriously the climate agenda and to address it with a great deal of urgency,” Mr Pershing said.

“Among other things, he put the United States back into the Paris agreement, we have begun to work on our own long-term strategy, and we held a summit of leaders from the world on the 22nd of April, on Earth Day, to really bring to the attention of the world our intent, and to help catalyze what we thought could be additional actions globally.

“We announced our own new target at that meeting.  We committed ourselves to a 50 to 52 percent reduction below 2005 levels by the year 2030.

“That’s a significant increase from where we had been before.  We are driving toward a commitment to get to net zero by 2050.  We are driving towards actions that the President has put into executive orders that call for decarbonizing the U.S. electricity system by 2035 by installing significant numbers of charging stations or electric vehicles, by putting in place building efficiency programs, and by putting resources to rebuild the American economy post-COVID and rebuild our infrastructure in ways that are low or zero-carbon.”

Mr Jonathan Pershing, the Senior Advisor to the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change

Mr Pershing said that a lot of times people forget about the urgency of the problem and the seriousness of it.

He said that was because of the lack of confidence and the certainty about the problem.

“One of the things that I think that all of us are aware of but often gets lost in some of the conversation is the urgency of the problem and the confidence that we have about the seriousness of it.  And the reason I use the word “confidence” is that people often say that we’re not certain, that perhaps it isn’t as bad as all that.  Maybe there’s other information we haven’t looked at yet.  Maybe it’s a natural set of events.  And the answer is that it’s not, and that the science is explicit and clear,” he said.

“We are currently on a trajectory, in the absence of people’s policies and technologies, on a trajectory to see several degrees of warming.  That’s degrees centigrade.  And that warming is a function of the kinds of things we do in our day-to-day living.  It’s how we use energy.  It’s how we grow our crops.  It’s the normal course of industrialization, which has provided substantial benefits but at the same time has led to some real damages and some real costs and consequences.

“That doesn’t sound like a very big temperature difference.  For most of us, we live in places where that might be not even very much in terms of a day to nighttime change.  And so you look at this temperature and you say, what’s a degree or two?”

He told the journalists that the last time the world had that kind of a significant change in temperature, huge areas were either under ice when it was colder or were covered by water when it was slightly warmer.

These are massive shifts when you look at global averages.  And it’s happening at a rate that’s faster than anything we’ve ever seen in geological history.

“It’s moving very, very quickly, much faster than communities and people can adapt.  And if you look at the consequences, we’re seeing them today,” he said.

“We’re seeing costs in terms of wildfires. The California wildfires are extraordinary.  They are killing enormous numbers of people.  They’re destroying communities.  They’re destroying habitat and wildlife.  And they are mirrored by wildfires in Australia, and those are mirrored by wildfires in the steppes of Russia, and those are mirrored by wildfires in the Amazon, which we’ve almost never seen before. “

The harsh reality of global warming. Photo: Forest Scout

These are consequences of climate changing along with increasing intensity of storms, typhoons of category 5 that used to never really exist which are much more frequent.

These change shave also affected things like zoonotic diseases that come as people encroach on those wild areas and also as the disease vectors move because the temperature has changed and the precipitation has changed.

These are things that are leading to increase not only in things like malaria and the Zika virus.

He said that there is a high possibility that in some parts of the world – a number of countries in the Middle East, as an example – become too hot and humid, where human life is not sustainable out of doors without protection.

This is because the combination of temperature and humidity is predicted to be too hot for a person to cool him or herself without an air conditioner.

“That’s extraordinary.  We don’t have places in the world that are like that.  And by 2030 or 2050, to expect that to be a number of days per year means you cannot live outside in those places, and that’s a remarkable shift,” he said.

“And if we look at the amount of global built infrastructure within a meter – three feet – of sea level and look at sea level rise, it’s an untenable thing to imagine a meter or two or three meters of sea level rise, and yet that’s in some of the projections and scenarios.   So the rationale for action is incredibly powerful, and I think that’s got to be framed.”

Mr Pershing said that the second thing people often think that it is not doable.

But he said the world knows what to do and how it can be done now.

“We do know how to do this.  We do know how to make the shifts and what’s required.  In some sense, the direction of travel is known – you have to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that come from energy primarily, but also from land use and forestry and from industrial activities.  That’s pretty clear.  We know what we have to do,” he said.

“We’re increasingly also able to point to ways you can deliver those outcomes at relatively marginal costs, and certainly if you look at the damages from climate and weigh those against the costs of action, the costs of actions, they’re quite modest, but damages are very, very large.  So in net, in balance, the world is much, much better served by taking those actions. But even on a specific level, we’re seeing real progress.

“So, for example, if we think about this as partly an energy problem and partly as a carbon-intensive energy problem, that’s a combination of coal, oil, and gas used for power, for transportation, for industrial heat, and we have solutions for all of those.

“If we look at the power sector, in much of the world today the price of a zero-emitting renewable energy alternative is cheaper than almost any fossil alternative.  That’s true in almost all cases for new construction and it’s increasingly true for existing infrastructure, where, in fact, it would cost you less to build something new and operate it – a solar plant, a wind turbine, maybe sometimes run a river hydro, maybe geothermal – it would cost you less to build and run that new plant than to keep the old one running.

“That’s a real shift.  These are things that have happened because of a tenfold or greater decrease in price of solar and wind just in the last decade or two.

“That’s changing the economic dynamics. We’re also seeing in the transport sector some real alternatives.  We’ve always known that things like mass transit really work well, particularly in high, dense city environments, and those are things that we need to do more of and we’re seeing cities around the world build that out.  But we’re increasingly finding ways to look at alternatives to gasoline vehicles, and where we haven’t got an alternative, to radically improve efficiency.”

Mr Pershing said that these are things that can save consumers a great deal of money as well as being opportunities to reduce environmental damages. And the damages are not just about climate.

“They’re about air quality.  They’re about toxics.  They’re about the life cycle of maintaining systems and leading to better qualities of lives.

“If we look at countries in Asia, which have among the worst air quality in the world, some of the shifts that will benefit climate will also improve local air quality, will include local water quality.  Those kinds of opportunities are ones that we now see.

And we’ve got a series of analyses that give us pathways to this future and talk about where we have to go and how we succeed.”

Mr Pershing said that the new Biden Administration is serious about these issues and wants to work with all major partners around the globe in ensuring that the agreed framework works.

He said the United Kingdom has been working on this aggressively and have moved forward, announcing more than 75 percent reduction by 2030.

Some countries are looking at 2045 for zero.

“These are incredible numbers that we’re seeing.  We’re seeing major new commitments that had been announced at the summit coming from around the world, some places that you’d anticipate, places that have been leaders in this agenda for a long time – some of the leaders in Latin America, a Costa Rica, a Colombia really pushing forward – but we also saw from Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil a statement around his intent to work at zero and to reduce deforestation,” Mr Pershing said.

“We’ve seen commitments from Russia, which historically has not been very forward-leading, really making some new announcements by President Putin.  We’ve seen some statements from China about – at our summit – their intent to look at more stringent controls on coal and a phasedown after 2025.  These kinds of things are directionally correct.

“Can we implement them?  How do we think about the rest of the world and where does it go?  And part of what we have to do is think:  What are the discrete tasks?  Are we seeing that forthcoming?  How do we finance it?  Where is the technology capacity going to be built?  What are the domestic policies that have to be developed in order to make that work?  And how do we pull those pieces together?”

Despite the challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 Mr Pershing believes the world is able to deliver.

“I’m not aware of any prior circumstance where a year after a pandemic there is a vaccine, not yet adequately or widely enough available, but we actually created a vaccine from nothing in the span of a year and are beginning to get it out there, and countries have put literally trillions of dollars of assets into rebuilding their economies.

“We know how to do things at scale, and we’ve just demonstrated it.  We have to apply that vision and that capacity to this problem, which is perhaps as existential, if not more so, for the global community.

“So our agenda – ours in the U.S. as we work domestically, ours as we work as part of a global community, ours in the global context – is to try to solve that problem and do so with as much speed and efficacy as we can and not leave people behind.

“Because we should be clear, there is a transition here.  And the transition can’t afford to leave people out.  It’s a transition that can’t leave people out in our country, who are underserved and more vulnerable.  It can’t leave out those same communities around the world who did very little to contribute to the emissions surplus but are going to be the – reap the difficulties of the change in climate and who we need to be assisting and facilitating as they make their own transition to a low-climate-, low-carbon-impact world.”

  • The author was selected as one of the foreign journalists to be part of the 2021 US State Department Foreign Press Center Virtual Tour.

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