Global Risk Report: Davos, Trump and Climate Change

During the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, President Trump once again noted his objection to the Paris climate accord.  In an interview with Piers Morgan, Trump again called it a “horrible deal” because, as has been widely reported, climate change or global warming is, per the president, a “hoax” perpetrated by the Chinese.  “There is cooling and there’s a heating – I mean look,” Trump explained to Morgan, “it use to not be climate change.  It used to be global warming.  That wasn’t working too well because it was getting too cold all over the place.  The ice caps were going to melt.  They were going to be gone by now, but now they’re setting records, okay?” 

Trump was asked about climate change because the topic was on the Forum’s agenda.  Not surprisingly, in the days leading up to the confab, climate scientists once again found the proceeding calendar year one of the warmest on record.  NASA ranked 2017 the second warmest since 1880 (or since reliable record keeping began), or after 2016.  NOAA, using a slightly different methodology, ranked it the third warmest after 2016 and 2015 respectively.  Not only were the last three years the warmest on record, the five warmest years on record have occurred since 2010, 17 of the 18 warmest since 2001 and last year marked the 21st consecutive year the contiguous United States had above average temperatures.  Record 2017 temperatures were somewhat unanticipated however because of the lack of an El Niño (or Pacific trade wind), effect that is associated with increased global temperatures.  Because air temperatures are largely determined by ocean temperatures, also not surprisingly the five warmest ocean temperature years recorder have been 2017, 2015, 2016, 2014 and 2013 respectively.  Ocean temperatures in 2017 were exceptionally warm.  Measured as heat energy in Joules, 2017 ocean temperatures exceeded 2015 by 1.51 x 10^22 Joules, or the amount of electrical energy China produces annually.

The Davos meeting was also preceded by the World Economic Forum’s annual publication of its global risk report.  The report, the Forum’s 13th, identifies the world’s most pressing risks and is used to inform Forum discussions.  This year’s report titled, “Global Risk 2018: Fractures, Fears and Failures,” included a climate change chapter titled, “Our Planet on the Brink.”  As the title suggests, the chapter, though comparatively far more brief, reads not unlike like David Wallace-Wells now famous (it has its own Wiki entry) July 2017 New York Magazine essay, “The Uninhabitable Earth, Famine, Economic Collapse, A Sun That Cooks Us: What Climate Change Could Wreak – Sooner Than You Think.” His essay begins with the simple, direct statement, “It is, I promise, worse than you think.” 

Among other things the Forum report chapter notes, atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen for the first time in four years.  Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is now measured at 403 parts per million (PPM), or represents a 65 percent increase over pre-industrial levels.  As a result global temperatures have increased by an average of 1.1 degrees Celsius (or two degrees Fahrenheit).  (The Paris accord goal is to keep the increase to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius).  As a result, among other things the chapter notes this past September the Atlantic experienced its most intense storm month on record contributing to making this past hurricane season the most expensive ever.  Beyond warming, the chapter states studies suggest oceans, having absorbed 93 percent of increased global temperatures, may now be losing their capacity to absorb carbon dioxide.  Of the most deadly 10 natural disasters during the first half of 2017, eight involved floods or landslides.  For example, the early January mud slides in Santa Barbara County were the result of a rain bomb that at one point dropped an inch of rain in 15 minutes.  Wildfire burn across the US,  made possible in part by the hottest California summer on record, was nearly 50 percent above the 10 year average.  The chapter also found that research suggests forests “are now releasing rather than absorbing carbon dioxide.”  Concerning global warming effects on foodstuffs, the chapter notes there is now an estimated one-in-20 chance per decade that heat, drought or floods will cause the failure of corn production in China and the US, the world’s two main growers, that would cause widespread famine.  Among other related findings is the fear of  “ecological Armageddon” caused in part by the collapse of insect populations critical to food production.  Researchers in Germany have observed a 75 percent decline in insect populations over the past few decades.

While President Trump marveled at ice caps setting records, the record was Arctic Ocean ice actually hit a record low in 2017 and is declining faster than any time in the past 1,500 years (Alaskans will see the disappearance of summer Arctic ice over the next two decades), other world leaders urged action.  French President Emmanuel Macron called for his country to become a “model in the fight against climate change.”  Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi was more candid calling climate change the “greatest threat to the survival and human civilization as we know it.”  The failure to address, he said, would serve as testimony to “an alarming glimpse of our own selfishness.”

Prime Minister Modi may have noticed during the meeting the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved its symbolic Doomsday Clock forward by 30 seconds, or to two minutes to midnight.  Their decision was based in part on the Trump administration’s indifference to climate change.  (The EPA’s climate change web page has been replaced by a message stating it is being updated to “reflect EPA’s priorities under the leadership of President Trump.”)  The only other time the clock was set so close to midnight or catastrophe in its 71-year history was in 1953, or after the US and the former Soviet Union detonated their first thermonuclear bombs.

Possibly as well Modi, Macron and German Chancellor Merkel, who also spoke in support of addressing climate change, read the November release of the US’s “Climate Science Special Report” (CSSR).  Authored by 13 federal agencies the report is considered the most definitive US statement on climate change.  The CSSR concluded, “it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominate cause of observed warming since the mid-20th century.”  Among numerous findings the CSSR reported current carbon dioxide concentrations, again beyond 400 PPM, last occurred three million years ago, “when,” the report stated, “global average temperature and sea levels were significantly higher than today.”  The CSSR also found “the present-day emissions rate of nearly 10 GtC (giga tons of carbon) per years suggests,” the report stated, “that there is no climate analog for this century any time in at least the last 50 million years.”  The White House’s response to the CSSR was to draw the trenchant conclusion, “the climate has changed and is always changing.” 

The consequences of a rapidly carbonized atmosphere (40 percent of carbon dioxide buildup has occurred since 1970), as Modi stated, threatens human survival.  For a glimpse of the health effects of climate change, The Lancet recently published a 50 page assessment by 60 authors examining five inter-related subjects including “climate change impacts, exposures, and vulnerability” and concluded “the trends elucidated in this Report provide cause for deep concern.”  This was because the report also found, “the health impacts [are] far worse than previously understood” and because “the past two decades have seen limited progress” in keeping temperature rise below two degrees Celsius (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).  A temperate rise the report shows that has caused, among other things, a 46 percent increase since 2000 in extreme weather events. 

At this point that the president does not recognize scientific fact or even scientific merit should not surprise us.  As Saturday Night Live recently riffed, at this point, does it matter.  What does or at least should matter is whether the professional medical community, that presumably exists to protect our health, thinks climate change matters.  It appears not.  As I wrote in a November 3 Quarks Daily essay, the professional medical community and its health care industry partners have not spent any of their considerable lobbying funds in an effort to address climate change or reduce global warming via federal legislation.  (Last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the health care industry spent more on lobby than any other industry at $512 million.)  During the 2009 Affordable Care Act debate the industry spent, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, $550 million.  That same year the House also passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act, the first and last Congressional effort to address climate change (the bill would have created an emissions or carbon trading plan).  Of the 112 clients the Center for Responsive Politics identifies having spent lobbying funds under its “environment” category in 2009, none were professional medical associations.  Center for Responsive Politics records for 2017 show of the $17 million spent under the “environment” category, again not one of the 83 clients is a professional medical association. 

As I concluded in the 3 Quarks essay (and in a June 2017 THCB essay moreover about the medical industry’s non-response to US withdrawal from the Paris accord), we, again, treat our atmosphere, the thin blue band that protects us, as an open sewer.  After China, the US is largest greenhouse gas polluter, emitting over 6,600 million metric tons of carbon in 2015 (and we are historically the largest greenhouse gass polluter).  Carbon emissions are for the foreseeable future having adverse effects on our health and our survivability particularly since global warming is not a single-system disease and because the adverse consequences of climate change are likely locked in for the next 20 to 30 years.  Sadly, this remains not the concern of the professional medical community. 

David Introcaso is a healthcare research and policy consultant based in Washington, D.C.

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