The National Digest

School Strikes Are Changing The World, Says UN Climate Science Advisor

Finnish meteorologist Petteri Taalas is secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization and a climate science advisor to the UN secretary general António Guterres. He will lead the science team at the forthcoming UN Climate Summit in New York that begins on 23 March. Graham Lawton caught up with him in London.

We haven’t been able to tackle emissions, they are still growing and consumption of fossil fuels is still growing. But what has happened is the mental attitude has changed, the message has been clearly heard. The public and young people have started demanding action. The private sector is more and more interested in investing in climate-friendly technologies. Sentiment has moved in the right direction, that’s obvious.

It is technically and economically doable, but one has to take account of the political realities. You have to think about what is acceptable to the general public. I’m now living in France and I saw the yellow vest moment when they tried to raise the petrol price a little bit. That is something the policymakers face. If unpopular decisions are made then your next government could be somebody who is not so favourable to climate mitigation.

That was a bit of that sentiment in Abu Dhabi in July, where we had a preparatory meeting for the climate summit. There were several countries saying we were happy with 2 degrees but 1.5 is not realistic

The basic question is how to raise ambition levels. Countries are supposed to think about how to raise their Paris agreement pledges. Most countries haven’t done too much. The US is an exception, it has done its homework. It has already been able to fulfil 50 per cent of its pledges. That is not its public image.

We haven’t seen anything positive happening in the atmosphere so far. In the past two years emissions have been growing and energy demand has been growing, especially in less developed countries. We have seen 1.1 degree warming and 26 centimetres of sea level rise. We are all the time breaking records in greenhouse gas concentrations. We have also been breaking temperature records; last July was the warmest month measured since the 1850s and last June was  the warmest June ever recorded. Sea level rise still continues and so does the melting of sea ice both in the southern hemisphere and the arctic. The melting of the glaciers continues.

This negative trend in climate will anyhow continue for the next 50 years but if we are successful with the mitigation efforts then we will see a plateau. Some people say climate change will cause the end of the world, but that’s not the case. The future depends on how successful we are with mitigation.

But the more pressure and acceptance of the general public they see, the better the chances of action and success. This movement of young people, that’s something. The Finnish minister of foreign affairs [Pekka Haavisto of the Green Party] has stated that he heard the challenge of young people when negotiating the program for the new government. That’s happening in many countries at the moment. There’s lots of positive movement.

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