Taking the Driver's Seat on Climate Change

George Vassiliou

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China Today

February 2019


Climate change has dominated global headlines in recent years with weather-related tragedies that have affected millions of people. As real as these tragedies have been, the response from some populist politicians, most notably the U.S. president, has been blame and denial. 

In 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that he would not honour the Paris Agreement submitted by his predecessor Barack Obama and was highly critical of the UN Green Climate Fund set up in 2010 to help with the agreement’s implementation. 

Climate, however, does not recognise political positions. In 2017, the United States incurred its costliest year on record with $306 billion in losses from climate-related disasters, including three massive hurricanes. With the recent devestation of Hurricane Michael and the unprecedented fires in California, it is clear that the frequency and intensity of these diasters are increasing. 

Globally, weather related losses rose by 151 percent in the last 20 years compared to the previous 20-year period. Despite the Paris climate agreement, the thousands of articles, speeches and studies concerning the dangers and negative effects of climate change, the situation is getting worse. In 2018 alone, Japan suffered massive flooding and mudslides, dust storms rolled through India, wind storms swept across Europe, Germany and other parts of Europe were hit by drought, and record high temperatures were set in cities around the world.

My region has been impacted by extreme heat caused by climate change more than most: Scientists forecast that global warming has doubled the likelihood of heat waves and this prediction was born out in the extreme heat wave that swept across Europe in the summer of 2018. Wildfires, for example, that erupted in Greece were so severe that cars were reduced to molten metal and whole villages were wiped out. Ninty-nine people lost their lives in what became the second deadliest wildfire tragedy in the twenty-first century.

And if my region is affected by climate change so is my country of Cyprus. In May 2018, the Cyprus Institute hosted a conference of scientists from thirty-five countries on the theme of  “Climate Change in the Mediterrean and the Middle East.” Leaders like the former prime minister of France, Laurent Fabius, who presided over the successful conclusion of the  COP21 Paris Agreement also attended. The conclusions of the conference were startling: the Environment Commissioner of Cyprus said that Cyprus could experience a 10 to 15 percent decline in rainfall in the next decades. This, in turn, according to the predictor models of the Cyprus Institute in their report “Climate Change and Impact” would result in an increase in extremely hot summer days with maximum temperatures exceeding 38 degrees Celsius for an additional two weeks per year compared to the already warm summers we are used to. By the end of the century our capital city Nicosia could have extremely hot days increasing by two months, resulting in weather conditions similar to Cairo or Bahrain today.

The severity of these  issues was highlighted in the October 2018 report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The report warned that we only have a dozen years left to keep global temperature rise to under 1.5 degrees Celsius or face significantly worse climate-related disasters. It is clear that the previous ambition of limiting temperature rise to a maximum of two degrees Celsius would result in far greater food and water insecurity, dramatically higher sea-level rise, and wipe out corals, among other dire effects. In horrifying contrast, the world remains on track to realize an increase of three degrees Celcius. The situation has become so critical that we witness demonstrations and appeals both in Europe and the U.S.

As the world turns from bad to worse, nineteen of the G20 leaders came together in Argentina in December 2018 to reaffirm their support of the Paris accord. The notable exception was once again President Trump, who just days before the meeting in Buenos Aires, expressed his opposition to a report by his own government that outlined how climate change is impacting the lives of Americans. 

The Fourth National Climate Assessment, a report compiled by hundreds of U.S. experts, summarizes current and future risks and featured the stark warning that “neither global efforts to mitigate the causes of climate change nor regional efforts to adapt to the impacts currently approach the scale needed to avoid substantial damages to the U.S. economy, environment, and human health and well-being over the coming decades.” 

Sir David Attenborough was chosen to speak for the world’s people when he addressed the 200 nations gathered in Katowice, Poland, for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December 2018: “Leaders of the world, you must lead. The continuation of civilisations and the natural world upon which we depend is in your hands.”

At the same time that President Trump was walking away from climate action, Chinese President Xi Jinping was “taking a driving seat.” At the 19thCommunist Party congress in October 2017, President Xi spoke about the benefits to be realized through reducing consumption and saving resources and warned that “Any harm we inflict on nature will eventually return to haunt us.” It was at the insistence of President Xi and French President Emmanuel Macron that the Paris Agreement was once again the centrepiece of the communiqué from the G20 meeting in Buenes Aires.

China’s engagement in preserving the health of the planet was witnessed in its unwavering support of the Paris Agreement, but domestically its work began when Premier Li Keqiang announced to the National People’s Congress in March 2014 that, “We will resolutely declare war against pollution as we declared war against poverty.” Since then, Chinese cities have reduced the fine particulates in the air by an average of 32 percent. The New York Timesreported in March 2018 that China’s fight against pollution had already added an average of 2.4 years to the life expectancy of its citizens. 

When the InterAction Council, a group of former leaders of which I have long been a member of, met in Beijing in September 2018, we had the pleasure of meeting with Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, who confirmed that “China will follow the path of peaceful development and promote the building of a community for a shared future for humanity.”

The Council’s leadership agreed with the Vice President that combatting climate change was crucial for the shared future of the planet.

There may never be complete agreement on the facts, but politics should not prevent the world from acting quickly to limit global warming.

George Vassiliou was President of the Republic of Cyprus 1988-1993 and Coordinator and Chief Negotiator for the accession to the E.U. 1998-2003