Will climate activists be able to keep the heat on after breakthrough year?

01 January 2020 - 09:00
By Tanya Farber
Cape Town schoolchildren hold placards denouncing climate change denialism.
Image: Ashraf Hendricks Cape Town schoolchildren hold placards denouncing climate change denialism.

This year will go down as the one in which climate change truly hit the mainstream in terms of awareness and protest action. But whether this affects the crisis facing us in the new decade remains to be seen.

It is estimated that about 4-million young people took to the streets for 4,600 protests in about 150 countries in 2019. Greta Thunberg’s school strikes outside parliament in her native Sweden had a domino effect, and she was recently named Time Person of the Year.

British environmental writer Stephen Buranyi describes climate activism as having “languished outside the mainstream for years” but in 2019 is “finally breaking through”.

Children were at the helm, propelled by “their anger at seeing their futures foreclosed by politicians who won’t even live to see the consequences” Buranyi wrote in The Guardian.

The spark also ignited for Extinction Rebellion, formed late in 2018 when about 100 academics signed a call to action arguing for civil disobedience in the face of a lack of action on climate change.

In November 2018, five bridges across the Thames in London were blockaded, and April 2019 saw the occupation of five sites in central London.

The mass movements to fight climate change surged against a backdrop of extreme weather events: a European summer of deadly heatwaves, cyclones in the Pacific, wildfires in America and Australia, and record-breaking temperatures in many locations.

As we head into a new decade, what might the 2020s hold in store and will the Thunberg protests and Extinction Rebellion civil disobedience change the fate of the planet by shifting the minds of politicians?

According to a report by the Universal Ecological Fund (UEF), a global research organisation, the vast majority of countries have failed to reach agreed targets.

“Under the 2015 Paris deal, countries agreed to limit global heating to 2°C, or 1.5°C if possible. Each country makes a voluntary pledge of climate action, but to date these would result in global temperatures rising by a disastrous 3-4°C,” the UEF report says.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded in 2018 that emissions, which are still rising, must fall by 50% by 2030 to be on track for the 1.5°C target. Of the 184 national Paris pledges made, 136 are judged as insufficient in the IPCC report.

Between 2015, when the Paris Agreement was signed, and 2030 (the milestone year for which the commitments were made), “the world will have caused enough warming to drive sea levels about 4.5 inches [11.4cm] higher in the future,” according to research by the University of Melbourne, which also said that sea-level rise is a slow backlash and not something that can be quickly turned around, even if emissions come down.

The IPCC report led to a flurry of warnings of a decade ahead that would feature extreme drought, floods, wildfires and food shortages.

The University of Melbourne said in the wake of the IPCC report that if we exceed 1.5°C since pre-industrial levels, “more heatwaves and hot summers, greater sea level rise, and, for many parts of the world, worse droughts and rainfall extremes” would follow.

Hurricanes would become more frequent and intense; droughts, like the one which sparked a water crisis in Cape Town which peaked from mid-2017 to mid-2018, would also become more frequent; and coral reefs could expect to see “between 79% and 90% die-off”, according to the report.