Bonn to Baku – cryosphere in crisis – where’s the hope for the world’s icy regions?

By Irene Quaile - June 27, 2024
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I spent quite a few mornings over the last couple of weeks standing in the security queue to get into Bonn’s conference centre for the UN climate talks held here every year in June. And unusually chilly mornings they were too, for what is known as “the sunny month” in this part of the world. You could be forgiven for wondering if the planet was really experiencing the record high temperatures we’ve been hearing about (and even a smile at the old “where’s the global warming?” joke).

But the figures just released by the EU’s climate watchdog Copernicus and the World Meteorological Organisation leave no doubt. Halfway between the last underwhelming UN climate conference in Dubai and the next one to be held in November in another fossil fuel centre Baku, Azerbaijan, our world is warmer than ever recorded.

Have we crossed the 1.5°C line?

While the delegates from all over the globe negotiating here in Bonn at the UN’s “climate headquarters” dug out their scarves and pullovers, the EU’s Earth Observation Programme Copernicus confirmed that not only was May 2024 warmer globally than any previous May in their dataset; it was also the twelfth month in a row that was the warmest for the respective month of the year.

Last month was actually 1.52°C above the estimated May average for the 1850-1900 pre-industrial reference period.

Yes, you read right. More than 1.5°C, the dreaded threshold the scientists tell us we have to keep below to avert the worst catastrophic impacts of climate warming.

Admittedly, the goals set in the Paris Agreement on climate change refer to long-term temperature increases over decades, not over one to five years. So those temperatures would have to continue for us to be formally in breach of that 1.5°C limit. But we are moving fast in that direction. The average temperature for the past 12 months (June 2023 – May 2024), was also the highest on record, at a staggering 1.63°C above the pre-industrial average.

The average sea surface temperature also hit the highest value on record in May – for the fourteenth month in a row.

“The climate continues to alarm us – the last 12 months have broken records like never before – caused primarily by our greenhouse gas emissions and an added boost from the El Niño event in the tropical Pacific”, said Samantha Burgess, Deputy Director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S). “Until we reach net-zero global emissions the climate will continue to warm, will continue to break records, and will continue to produce ever more extreme weather events,” she went on. “If we choose to continue to add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere then 2023/4 will soon look like a cool year, in a similar way to how 2015/6 now appears.”

There’s a thought.

Scientists protest outside the UN climate talks in Bonn. (Pic: I.Quaile)

Crunch – or squelch time for ice and snow regions

For the cryosphere, the ice- and snow covered regions of our planet, this trend is disastrous. And all the scientific evidence to that effect has failed to produce the necessary results in terms of government policy and action. At these same Bonn climate talks a year ago, I heard Professor Chris Stokes, a leading glaciologist at Durham University say we were “on the edge of a cliff.” He stressed that the latest science over the last two to three years (well overtaking that included in the last IPCC report) tells us the threshold beyond which ice loss from the Antarctic – long thought to be immune to climate warming – will become irreversible over centuries to millennia, is much lower than previously thought.

“If we keep on as we are now, we could trigger runaway feedbacks within the next few decades, with sea level rise from ice sheets accelerating much, much faster than we feared,” Stokes said.

Just this week, new research published in the journal Nature Geoscience found that future sea level rise from the loss of ice sheets could be significantly higher than current projections. The scientists found that just a small increase in the temperature of seawater intruding between coastal ice sheets and the ground they rest on could lead to a very big increase in the loss of ice from Antarctica and elsewhere.

“We find that increases in ocean temperature can lead to a tipping point being passed, beyond which ocean water intrudes in an unbounded manner beneath the ice sheet, via a process of runaway melting. Additionally, this tipping point may not be easily detected with early warning indicators,” the researchers write.

Dr Alexander Bradley of the British Antarctic Survey, who led the research, told the Guardian:

“With every tenth of a degree of ocean warming, we get closer and closer to passing this tipping point, and each tenth of a degree is linked to the amount of climate change that takes place, so we need very dramatic action to restrict the amount of warming that takes place and prevent this tipping point from being passed.”

Climate scientist Susana Hancock shows how sea level rise will inundate 2023 COP host Dubai. (Pic. I.Quaile)

At COP29 in Dubai, more than a thousand scientists signed a “Cryosphere Call to Action”, which summed up the plight of our icy regions:

“The Cryosphere – Earth’s ice sheets, sea ice, permafrost, polar oceans, glaciers and snow – is ground zero for climate change. This is because of the simple physical reality of the melting point of ice; or in the case of our rapidly acidifying polar oceans, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere absorbed and turned to carbonic acid.

The warming impact of CO2, around 80% from fossil fuel use, already has led to steep glacier and ice sheet loss causing global sea-level rise; reduction of water resources from snowpack; growing CO2 and methane emissions from thawing permafrost; dramatic reduction of sea ice, now alarmingly low in both polar oceans; and growing evidence of stress on keystone polar marine species, such as krill, salmon and cod, from polar ocean acidification, warming and freshening.”

The scientists concluded: “Because of what we have learned about the Cryosphere since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, 1.5°C is not merely preferable to 2°C. It is the only option,”

Sigh.

The scientists’s call for urgent action to limit warming to 1.5°C did not lead to the necessary decisions in Dubai – and the lack of progress in this month’s Bonn talks gives me no reason to feel optimistic that Baku will do much better.

WMO acknowledges cryosphere crisis

In a reflection of growing international concern about melting ice, snow and permafrost, the World Meteorological Organization WMO, has announced that it will ramp up activities to strengthen monitoring, advocacy and collaboration on the cryosphere.

High time, I hear you Iceblog readers comment.

“Urgent action to mitigate climate change is needed to avoid the most devastating outcomes for the cryosphere. Every tenth of a degree of warming that is mitigated will limit the cryosphere loss and subsequent related impacts to Earth systems,” said Roar Skålin and Stephen Hunt from the relevant WMO Executive Council Panel (PHORS).

Where the polar regions were once considered remote, isolated and irrelevant to most of the people living on our planet, the awareness of their global relevance is finally being more widely acknowledged.

“The cryosphere is important to everyone. It is everyone’s business,” Skalin and Hunt reiterated in presenting the new initiative.

“Thawing permafrost, reduced snow cover, melting glaciers, declining sea ice, and the melting of polar ice sheets and ice shelves, create risks for everyone on the planet. Such risks are felt, for example, through sea-level rise, change of hydrological and ecological regimes, changes in the global circulation and reinforced global warming,” the WMO experts state.

Ice from the mighty ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica will determine the fate of low-lying communities around the globe. (Photo: I.Quaile)

Yet there are huge deficits in ability to monitor the rapid pace of change. Over Antarctica, for instance, a continent which is bigger than the USA, there are just 127 automatic weather stations.

“There are few ocean observations – a massive gap given that the ocean is melting antarctica from underneath”, the experts add.

How much more does it take?

Still, there is no lack of evidence that ice melt is accelerating.

In the past 30 years, all ice shelves around Greenland have disappeared – and the same trend is expected in the Antarctic in future, the WMO experts reiterate. Ice sheet melt has accelerated the rate of sea level rise.

Current levels of warming mean that the world is committed to a sea level rise of at least two meters, Danish scientist Ruth Motram told WMO delegates. James Kirkham, Chief Science Advisor to the Ambition on Melting Ice (AMI) High-level Group, a gathering of polar, mountain and low-lying regions, went further at the latest UN conference in Bonn: “Current global heating has made three meters’ sea level rise from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet inevitable, but if we stick close to 1.5 degrees, we can slow that rise to take place over many centuries.”

Vancouver, Canada and Miami, USA could already suffer substantial sea level rise impacts as early as 2070 if emissions continue as now. (Copyright and full presentation: Dr. James Kirkham, Chief Scientist ICCI/AMI)

(New research by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) warns that sea level rise driven by global heating will disrupt the daily life of millions of Americans, as hundreds of homes, schools and government buildings face frequent and repeated flooding by 2050, reported in The Guardian, 25.6.2024)

The WMO adopted the high-level ambitions as a “guide for scaled up activities on the cryosphere.” The key factors they cite are that everyone on the planet should be prepared for and resilient to the impacts from changes in the cryosphere. They name sea-level rise, water and food scarcity, geotechnical risks, and threats to trade, economies and energy sources.

That should really be enough to galvanize action?

Activists in Bonn, Germany. (Pic: I.Quaile)

The world`s key weather organisation calls on the global community to “work collaboratively to limit and reduce cryosphere loss and its impacts”.

So my question to the world’s climate negotiators and the governments and companies who could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and halt that cryosphere loss: Are you listening?

“The importance of the cryosphere and the consequences of its changes are known, universally understood and inspire action”, the WMO goes on.

Sometimes I wonder. Why are we on the path to a temperature rise of something like 2.7°C, as Climate Action Tracker calculates, instead of the 1.5°C we need?

Fossil fuel industry: “Godfathers of climate chaos”

No less a figure than UN Secretary General António Guterres made an impassioned appeal on climate – including cryosphere in particular – in a speech in New York during the Bonn climate talks.

Citing that latest Copernicus Climate Change Service report showing we just had the hottest May in history, the UN chief said global emissions need to fall nine per cent every year just to keep the 1.5℃ temperature rise limit above pre-industrial levels alive.

Last year, they went up by one per cent.

For the past year, every turn of the calendar has turned up the heat. Our planet is trying to tell us something. But we don’t seem to be listening. We’re shattering global temperature records and reaping the whirlwind. It’s climate crunch time. Now is the time to mobilise, act and deliver,” Guterres stated.

So right.

Again.

Climate activists in Bonn, Germany. (Pic: I.Quaile)

We are playing Russian roulette with our planet,” said Mr. Guterres. “We need an exit ramp off the highway to climate hell, and the truth is we have control of the wheel.”

The UN chief is certainly ramping up the rhetoric. The question is whether the people who need to act on his message are listening – and whether the multiplied metaphors might even be counter-productive, playing into the hands of the widespread campaign painting climate scientists and proponents of a low-carbon transition as “doom and gloomers”, panic-mongers, who exaggerate natural events into human-made disasters.

Guterres came out with an open attack on the fossil fuels industry: “the Godfathers of climate chaos – the fossil fuel conglomerates – rake in record profits and feast off trillions in taxpayer-funded subsidies.”

You can’t get it much clearer than that.

He said many in the oil and gas industry have “shamelessly greenwashed” while actively trying to delay climate action, aided and abetted by advertising and public relations companies.

“I call on these companies to stop acting as enablers to planetary destruction. Stop taking on new fossil fuel clients, from today, and set out plans to drop your existing ones,” said the Secretary-General.

He even called on every country in the world to institute a ban on advertising from fossil fuel companies.

I would love to think those concerned would listen to the head of that great organisation, the United Nations, and respond to his plea with urgent action.

Alas.

And that ice keeps getting thinner. (Glacier Park, Alaska) (Pic.I.Quaile)

A willing disconnect?

While thousands die in extreme heatwaves, while floods, drought, forest fires and failed harvests show us climate change in action, in real-time, emissions and the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere continue to rise. At the same time, we are seeing a backlash against climate-protection measures. Here in Europe, too many voters in the recent elections turned away from the “Green Deal”. Right-wing and populist parties appeal with false promises, unashamedly equate climate action with high costs, and attack green policies and parties as public enemy number one – not the fossil fuel industries justly indicted by the UN Secretary General. They equate climate action with a loss of free choice, with enforced rules and restrictions, and bury the knowledge that a greener, climate-friendlier world will benefit us all in the long run. And not just economically. Think health, living conditions, living standards, security.

There seems to be a disconnect – a willing disconnect? – between what is actually happening on the planet, what science, physics, tells us we have to do to preserve the Earth and life upon it, and behaviour here in the wealthy, developed world; interest only in selfishly maintaining or improving your own standards of living at all cost without regard for vulnerable nations and groups elsewhere – and coming generations.

The 1.5C goal that is essential to save our icy regions, and protect the globe as a whole from the consequences of losing them, is sliding out of reach. But we can still limit the damage and prevent the worst. Pulling back from the brink “is still just about possible”, according to the UN Secretary-General. We have to fight harder. It all depends on decisions taken by political leaders during this decade and “especially in the next 18 months”.

Given the current global political situation, with wars in Ukraine and Gaza and the shadow of Donald Trump’s candidacy for the US Presidency looming over us, that is a very frightening prospect.

Bonn between Dubai and Baku

So what about those tough negotiations that just took place here in Bonn to try to move things forward? As far as the Arctic, Antarctic and all the other icy regions of our planet are concerned – not to mention the numerous regions of the world whose fate depends on them – this key staging post, halfway between Dubai and Baku, widely ignored by the mainstream media and largely unnoticed by the general public, did not bring any progress.

UNFCCC Executive Secretary Simon Stiell had his work cut out for him in Bonn- and beyond. (Pic: I.Quaile)

The focus here – and at COP29 in Baku, for which these diplomats are trying hard to pave the way – is on finance. Countries are supposed to reach an agreement at COP29 on a new, global climate-finance goal that will come into play after 2025. This is a key issue – and could be the one that ultimately decides whether we take steps to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C or not. The bitter struggle between developed and developing countries over who should provide the trillions of dollars required to tackle climate change across the global south overshadowed the meeting. Discussions of everything from assessing climate adaptation, to carrying forward the outcomes from last year’s “stocktake” in Dubai, were held up by financial disputes, concluded Carbon Brief.

Wealthy, industrialised countries have to guarantee – and actually provide – the funding needed by vulnerable countries to cope with the effects of the climate catastrophe and to transition towards a low-carbon economy. It is understandable that poor, least developed countries are increasing the pressure. Meanwhile, countries like China and Saudi Arabia have been blocking progress for their own ends.

Demonstration at COP28, Dubai. (Pic: I.Quaile)

To me, it seems impossible to separate mitigation – reducing the emissions that are drastically altering our cryosphere – and funding for adaptation and to compensate Loss and Damage. As one delegate from an African country put it to me: we have to connect funding, loss and damage and mitigation. If there is no progress on cutting emissions, loss and damage will get higher and higher and the funding needed with it. If some countries block progress on cutting emissions in the hope of pressuring wealthy countries to provide more funding, we will all go under.

Alas, that view has not been taken up widely.

So where’s the good news?

Why do I not just give up, bury my head in the sand, or head off on a mega- CO2-emissions- producing round-the-world trip and consumption binge?

Well, I suppose my glass is always half-full. And I am confident that the world will go low-carbon once it finds out it really is in its own selfish interest. In spite of all that scary stuff and the highway-to-hell rhetoric, the UN Secretary-General himself spells out the good points:

The renewable energy business worldwide is booming as costs plummet and now make up 30 per cent of the world’s electricity supply.

Meanwhile, clean energy investments reached a record high last year, almost doubling in the past decade.

Economic logic makes the end of the fossil fuel age inevitable,” Guterres declared.

There we have it.

To ensure the safest possible future for humankind and the planet, the head of our top global authority tells us, all we have to do, asap, is:

  • Slash emissions
  • Protect people and nature from climate extremes
  • Boost climate finance
  • Clamp down on the fossil fuel business

The biggest burden for action must fall on the richest nations and biggest emitters.

“Advanced G20 economies should go furthest, fastest” while also providing technical and financial support to developing nations, he said.

In terms of climate justice, Guterres said it was a disgrace that most vulnerable nations are being left stranded with the impacts of a climate crisis they did nothing to create.

“We cannot accept a future where the rich are protected in air-conditioned bubbles while the rest of humanity is lashed by lethal weather in unliveable lands.”

Well, I agree fully, but I’m pretty sure altruism or a sense of justice alone will not do it. But something else in our selfish human nature will:

“Fairer climate finance and an end to the crippling debt and high interest rates that many developing nations have to endure is not a question of charity, but about ‘enlightened self-interest” the UN Chief notes.

So there we have it. What are we waiting for?


Irene Quaile has been writing about the Arctic since 2007. During a trip to the Alaskan Arctic in 2008, she created The Ice Blog. You can read her articles by clicking on this link.