New global climate chief accused of appearing to forget Pacific islands


Newly-elected climate chief Jim Skea has been accused of downplaying threats to the Pacific Islands in his first media interviews in the job.

The new head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) told The Telegraph in Britain and German news magazine Der Spiegel that heating above 1.5 degrees Celsius was “not an existential threat to humanity”, comments labelled “hugely disappointing” by New Zealand-based IPCC author Bronwyn Hayward.

The Telegraph headlined its interview with Skea ‘Ignore the doom-mongers’, in a piece referencing backlash against direct action protest groups such as Extinction Rebellion.

The British professor also said that, while the world wouldn’t end above 1.5C, it would be a more dangerous place, and stressed the need to invest in infrastructure so that people can cycle and use renewable energy.

Skea’s comments also won support, with University of Waikato climate change senior lecture Luke Harrington fully agreeing with him.

The disagreement is not about the physical severity of global heating, which all parties agree will kill more people as it gets worse, but about how to communicate the threat of crossing 1.5C – which is likely to happen at least temporarily this decade, and possibly permanently unless carbon can be sucked back into the ground using as-yet-still-emerging carbon capture technology.

Many of Skea’s other comments focussed on avoiding despair and apathy if 1.5C is crossed. Average heating is at 1.2C already, with devastating consequences in New Zealand and elsewhere.

While Hayward – a University of Canterbury Professor – agreed that staying hopeful was crucial, she feared Skea’s comments risked looking tone-deaf to the most threatened communities.

Commitments by the vast majority of nations to aim for keeping heating inside 1.5C (or at maximum 2C) under the 2015 Paris Agreement have been considered a lifeline by small Pacific countries such as Kiribati, which sits no more than 2m above today’s sea level and is confronting the option of wholesale migration.

The 1.5C goal was adopted by signatories to the Paris Agreement after an IPCC report showed it would hugely reduce people’s suffering from floods, fires, droughts, pollution, heat waves, disease and plant and animal extinctions compared with heating of 2C or 3C.

“We know that the more serious the reporting becomes of some of the grimmer (climate) stories, the more likely people will switch off,” said Hayward.

“Panic is not helpful.”

“But that doesn’t mean we don’t admit it’s an existential crisis. It means that we talk about ways of phrasing our policy so that every action we take will still matter. Every increment of warming matters, every action that we take matters,” she said.

“While I agree with what Professor Skea is trying to say, which is that we’re going to go past 1.5 degrees, and we have to keep working, to say that it’s not an existential crisis is unfortunate, and deeply disappointing… because it is an existential crisis for the small Pacific states, parts of Africa, and parts of Southeast Asia.”

“While Western Europe and other countries are reeling under these heat waves, small countries, in the Pacific in particular, are already experiencing significant land loss,” she said.

“The other very unfortunate implication, which I’m sure that Professor Skea had not wished to make… is that the Paris Agreement is somehow no longer relevant, because it had an emphasis on 1.5C. But the Paris Agreement talks about keeping temperatures as close to 1.5C as possible. And that’s really the message we need to talk about when we crash through 1.5C,” she said.

University of Waikato senior climate lecturer Luke Harrington agreed with Hayward about the deadly impacts for many communities, however, unlike Hayward, he fully supported Skea’s comments.

“I agree with everything that Jim Skea has said, particularly that 1.5C is not an existential threat to humanity, or that civilisation is in any way at risk of extinction after temperatures exceed this amount of warming,” said Harrington.

“Now of course, that’s not to say that there will be no lives or livelihoods lost due to the impacts of this warming – on the contrary, there will be many.”

“But that’s different from being an existential threat to all of humanity, and it’s equally important to keep in mind that many lives and livelihoods are already being lost due to the impacts of a 1.2C-warmer world today,” Harrington said.

“Impacts do not emerge evenly around the world, and any warming will increase the unfairness and inequality of impacts felt by different communities around the world. …. [It] is the most vulnerable communities who are being most heavily impacted by the ongoing extreme heat in the USA and across the Mediterranean, just as it is lower-income and small island states who experience more significant climate impacts than higher-income mid-latitude countries after any level of global temperature rise.”

Harrington said these debates were going to arise more often as global average temperatures temporarily approach 1.5C hotter, which he is concerned people may confuse with permanently crossing the threshold.

“We should all be able to agree that massive urgency is needed to both adapt to existing levels of change, and to rapidly reduce our emissions, so we can avoid the unadaptable impacts that will only become more likely as temperatures continue to rise,” he said.

Skea himself has not given up on 1.5C – he recently said the goal was still reachable, though only just. Last year – in his previous role as an IPCC co-chair – Skea said it was “now or never” to stay inside the that level.

Photo: IPCC jim Skea

The Imperial College of London sustainable energy professor was elected as chair in July, having promised he would focus on inclusiveness in the science body, including of women. Some climate scientists had hoped the IPCC would get its first woman chair, after two women were nominated alongside Skea and another candidate, marking the first time a woman had been nominated.

The peak climate body has just finished its sixth round of reports, which distil all the evidence on how the planet is heating, why, and what can be done about it in a condensed form so that governments can make decisions. Skea’s job is to lead the seventh round, which begins as governments grapple with climate-charged heat waves, wildfires, floods and other disasters.