Climate change: 2017 in review

The impact of human activity on our climate has become increasingly dangerous as the 21st century progresses. Unfortunately, it is a hotly contested topic and is often used as a political football, making it difficult to discern how Australia and the world are tackling the issue.

2017 has seen climate change covered extensively in the news, from momentous international agreements to thought-provoking claims from various politicians. But is this media attention doing anything to help solve the problem?

This month, the Global Carbon Project announced that global carbon dioxide emissions are set to grow by two per cent in 2017, reaching a record high of 37 billion tonnes. This follows a plateauing period from 2014-2016 that many hoped — to no avail — would be followed by a decrease in emissions.

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Despite a plateau in emissions between 2014 and 2016, this year has seen CO2 emissions growth from fossil fuels and industry. Source: Global Carbon Project

Instead, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere continue to rise, reaching 410 parts per million in April 2017, for the first time in millions of years.

“I can’t tell you how dismaying it is to see those figures. It’ll be another who knows how long until we see a decrease, which is quite depressing, but we’ve just got to double down,” says Professor Tim Flannery, Chief Councillor of non-profit organisation Climate Council.

Despite the somewhat fractured nature of the climate change effort in Australia, Flannery is confident that progress can be made.

“Education and giving people access to the facts really is the key. We find that as we do our surveying, this is the slow but steady road to getting this right, and more and more people do understand what needs to happen.”

Paris: an inconvenient withdrawal
One of the most important recent events in the global effort to combat climate change was the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement, which came into effect in November 2016.

The difficulties of negotiating harsh political realities to achieve this agreement are detailed in a new documentary, An Inconvenient Sequel, out now on DVD and Blu-ray. The film follows on from An Inconvenient Truth, the 2006 film by former US Vice President Al Gore which brought the issue of global warming to light.

More than a decade after the release of An Inconvenient Truth, the signing of the first global accord on climate change is bittersweet for climate activists.

“[The progress made since 2006] hasn’t been enough and we are late coming to that agreement, but at least we have it now, which is a huge step forward,” says Flannery.

Unfortunately, one of the big political events of 2017 was President Trump’s June announcement that the United States intends to withdraw from the agreement in three years time. The loss of the US administration’s support is no doubt a blow to the accord, but it still represents a significant international commitment, given that no country has followed in America’s decision to withdraw.

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USA and Syria are the only two nations not a part of the Paris Agreement

In fact, Flannery argues that the damage is limited and those who are committed have strengthened their resolve in response to the withdrawal.

Unlike its predecessor, An Inconvenient Sequel considers the climate problem with a degree of hope. With the increasing adoption of clean energy technology, financing changes, and new political arrangements, it seems Al Gore may not have to make a third documentary in another decade.

The physical impacts
While the political sphere has been tumultuous on the issue of climate change, the physical environmental effects have been even worse.

2017 saw a dangerous hurricane season in the Caribbean and increased bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef on Australian shores, as well as decreased winter rainfall patterns.

Though there is danger in using sensationalised natural disasters as evidence of climate change, analysis has shown concerning trends regarding hurricanes and cyclones. “With things like cyclones, we have to point out that they are relatively rare events. The number varies year to year, but what we are seeing consistently is an increase in the power of those cyclones as the oceans get warmer,” explains Flannery.

This year also marked the first time the Great Barrier Reef has suffered bleaching events for two consecutive years, in line with a persistent global trend of continued coral bleaching due to rising sea temperatures.

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A shocking two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef is affected by severe coral bleaching

The bleaching now affects approximately two-thirds of the Reef, and the back-to-back events mean there hasn’t been time for it to recover between 2016 and 2017.

Though the situation appears dire, there is hope that scientific intervention may help the reef repair itself for future generations.

Looking to 2018
For many nations, including Australia, the climate "day of reckoning” will come in 2020, when significant emissions targets must be met. As we approach this deadline, the next two years will show whether the world is doing enough to combat climate change.

“We should see a crackdown on emissions — we need to move as hard and as fast as we can to clean energy systems. That consistency of effort is what pays off in the long term,” says Flannery.

Looking past 2020, the impact of climate change will become more severe, as the planet does not have the physical capability to remove such vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at the scale required. Nonetheless, with a powerful response to the issue, perhaps the next couple of years will mark a turning point for climate change.


What do you think about the international action on climate change in 2017?

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