As I write this, hundreds of polar bears are gathered on the shores of Hudson Bay, near Churchill, Manitoba, to wait for the sea ice to return. It’s Polar Bear Week, an event created by my colleagues at Polar Bears International to draw attention to sea ice loss in the Arctic and the urgent need to halt the global rise in temperatures causing the ice to melt.
This year, Polar Bear Week coincides with the COP 23 climate change conference in Bonn, Germany. The overlap is fitting. Polar bears are the premier symbol of global warming, with their very survival threatened by melting habitat.
This year’s conference follows the 2015 climate talks in Paris (COP 21) where delegates passed a critical milestone for the future of the earth. There, nearly all the world’s countries agreed that, without action to greatly reduce CO2 emissions, the earth’s temperature will be 4°C or more above the pre-industrial average by the end of the century, creating a climate no polar bear has ever known. But a runaway climate has dire impacts that extend way beyond polar bears.
By century’s end, summer temperatures over most of Africa and the Middle East—areas that already are food- and water-stressed—will be hotter than the hottest summers ever recorded there—with significant impacts on wildlife habitat and human food production across the region. Future summers in central Montana will be as hot as those currently experienced in southern Texas, and temperatures in Bonn, Germany, where this year’s climate conference takes place, will be similar to current temperatures in Istanbul, Turkey.
But before celebrating a new-found Mediterranean climate in Germany, we must contemplate how that extra heat will impact crops, water availability, and the severity of storms and droughts. Climate models have long predicted that greater atmospheric and oceanic heat content will result in more frequent and severe droughts and floods and otherwise more erratic weather. We are already experiencing an increase in weird weather events, and we can be virtually certain that their frequency and intensity will increase so long as we allow CO2 concentrations to continue to rise.
Delegates to the Paris climate talks agreed to a goal of holding temperature rise to 2°C or less. Doing so would avoid the most severe impacts of climate change on future generations and prevent the disappearance of polar bears.
BUT, the U.S. plans to walk away from the landmark Paris agreement—despite the laws of physics, reams of evidence, and the “budget-busting” costs of dealing with wildfires, floods, and other climate-related disasters. Fortunately, many U.S. cities, states, businesses, and universities have stepped up to address emissions and are fighting to assure a future for our children. At the international level, however, the U.S. decision creates a critical void. And that’s why Germany must show true leadership at this year’s talks, providing hope and a clear path forward.
Germany has historically been a strong voice in support of action on climate. Although an industrial powerhouse, per capita CO2 emissions in Germany are approximately half those in the U.S., and Germany increased renewable electricity generation 10-fold between 1990 and 2016. But changes are necessary if Germany is to step fully into a leadership role. Despite huge gains in renewable power generation—actually creating a surplus of capacity—Germany has not reduced its combustion of coal and has not reduced its national emissions for eight years. Without a rapid change of course, Germany will not meet its 2020 climate targets, let alone the longer-term goals set in Paris.
This failure to pursue its commitments to climate change mitigation creates a major credibility problem for Germany, which, unrectified, will contribute to future global crises. The fate of the world depends on industrialized nations leading the way toward CO2 reductions. With the U.S. government abdicating its role, Germany has an opportunity to take a big step forward and lead by example. But such leadership requires eliminating coal from their electricity sector. Every ton of coal consumed pumps over 3.5 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. In addition, the air quality and health issues related to burning coal—especially lignite which currently accounts for about 26% of German power generation—are monumental and expensive.
Our colleagues at World Wildlife Fund (WWF)—Germany, have mapped out a strategy by which their country can phase out enough older coal-fired power plants to meet its 2020 climate change commitments and totally stop burning coal by 2035. Such a transition would eliminate Germany’s current credibility problem and position it as a true leader in global efforts to preserve a livable climate. Let’s hope Germany adopts the course outlined by WWF and steps into a true climate change leadership position—for the sake of the polar bears and the rest of us.