In the past year, I have been unfortunate enough to experience two climatic events that shook my home nation, Portugal. Two events that I have never before experienced, and that I am afraid my son, and daughter, my nephews and nieces will experience a lot more frequently in the years to come.
The Great Fire
Firstly, there were the wildfires that plagued Portugal last year. The largest one, now called the ‘Great Fire of 15 October’ (like the great fire of London, which my daughter has been studying at school), devastated about 54.000 hectares of centre of Portugal in just one day.
On the day of the fire, I was in London. Yet, I saw the impact of these fires as I, like so many, looked at the sky getting darker and darker.
Later, the news clarified that this huge shadow cast across the British capital – some 900 miles away – was in fact caused by the smoke and soot of the wildfires in Portugal, transported by the winds of Hurricane Ophelia.
Meanwhile, in the village where my family comes from, the fire was at the doors of people’s homes. Some of these homes have been there since the 16th century and have seen so much history but never had they faced fire like this. Further south, the 11,000 hectares of pine forests planted in the 13th century by order of King D. Afonso III as a defence for the region’s farmlands against the encroaching sand dunes burned almost entirely.
When I arrived home two days later, the land was still smoking.
The explanation for such devastation is complex, but two factors stand out. First, after several years of low rainfall and atypical seasons, 80% of the country was in severe drought,
Secondly, Hurricane Ophelia was passing by the Peninsula, unleashing strong, dry winds that further fuelled the fire. Both factors have been linked to climate change, and similar conditions have been implicated in the fires in California and Greece we saw this summer.
Wildfires are not unheard of in Portugal. When I was young, August always brought such events to our doorstep. I remember smelling them and thinking “fire” even if I could not see them. But never has this happened in October – when it should already be raining, and temperatures should be low – and never have I seen such destruction of homes and livelihoods.
Portugal’s new normal?
Earlier this month (13th October), less than a year since the Great Fire, Hurricane Leslie passed by. This time, there was no wildfire, but torrential rain and ferocious, record-breaking winds of over 100mph.
Although Leslie had weakened to a tropical storm by the time it hit, this was still almost unprecedented in Portuguese history; only five hurricanes have ever arrived in the region of the Atlantic around the Iberian Peninsula. Leslie and Ophelia make two in two years.
Hurricane Leslie left 27 injured, 61 homeless and over 300,000 people without electricity. I was without electricity for three days myself – and many others for nearly a week.
So, in less than a year, fire, wind and water of cataclysmic proportions have hit, literally, at the back door of my family and friends.
Climate change in the here and now
I have taken the time to write this because I sometimes still have that impression of climate change as something distant – either in space or time – even though I’ve been working in this field for many years now and know this not to be the case.
We often talk about climate change as something which is on the way, or something that happens to other people. Ultimately though, we are all exposed.
There is, of course, always hope. Three years ago, in Paris, world leaders came together to agree a new universal climate agreement, agreeing to act to hold global temperatures well below 2°C, and striving for 1.5°C.
This felt like a momentous shift, a turning point for action, and since then, working at CDP I have been buoyed by the continued show of ambition from companies, investors, cities, states and regions across the world.
They are making strides towards the low-carbon transition; not just because they identify increased risks from climate change, but because they also see the opportunities of the alternative - the emerging green economy.
Ground-breaking initiatives and tools like science-based targets and carbon pricing are helping companies and cities plan for a sustainable future, while collaborations between investors and companies, city authorities and businesses, and corporations with their suppliers are unlocking opportunities and building resilience.
An uncomfortable truth, an unprecedented shift
But the simple truth is that, to avoid catastrophic warming, the signs of leadership we are seeing need to develop into deep, widespread climate action at all levels of the economy, from the city level to national governments, from companies and their investors.
Moreover, this unprecedented economic, political and social shift must happen well within the next decade if we are to avoid the worst consequences of global warming.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Special Report on 1.5°C offers a clear warning of just what is at stake.
The most extensive warning to date on the risk of global temperature rise, it shows that even half a degree more of warming – 2°C over 1.5°C – will see significantly worse risks from drought, floods and extreme heat.
The window of opportunity for 1.5°C has not yet closed, but this latest scientific update sends a clear signal that momentum must ramp up and accelerate sharply.
It warns that holding temperature rise below 1.5°C will mean global CO2 emissions will need to decline by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, and reach net zero by 2050, while renewables will need to provide some 85% of global electricity by the same year.
We have the technical and financial tools to tackle climate change. All we need now is the ambition – and action – from all sides of society.
Businesses need to continue their drive towards a zero-carbon future, while at the same time increasing the pace and scale of the transition, while governments need to increase the ambition of their national emissions reduction plans to ensure an enabling environment for rapid and widespread progress.
The time to act is now.