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Prevention Is Better Than The Cure - A Climate Change Interview with Dr. Hugh Sealy

Dr. Hugh Sealy is Canadian by birth and Barbadian by descent. He obtained his Bachelor of Engineering (Chemical) from McGill University, Montreal, Canada. He completed a Master of Science in Environmental Pollution Science at Brunel University, Middlesex, U.K. and a Doctorate of Philosophy in Environmental Science at the University of Liverpool, U.K. He is the recipient of a Barbados Scholarship and a Commonwealth Scholarship. Dr. Sealy has over 25 years of experience as a project manager, professional engineer, university lecturer, and environmental scientist. Currently, he teaches at St. George’s University in Grenada.

Since 2007, Dr. Sealy has served as a senior negotiator for the AOSIS Climate Change Technical Negotiating Team at the Conferences of the Parties under the UNFCCC. In January 2008, he was elected as a Member of the Executive Board of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In December 2011, Dr. Sealy was re-elected to the Executive Board of the CDM to serve as the Member for the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). He is also a past chairman of the CDM’s executive board. Under the CDM, emission-reduction projects in developing countries can earn certified emission reduction credits. These saleable credits can be used by industrialized countries to meet a part of their emission reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol.

eco: The Trump Administration has threatened to pull out of the Paris Agreement, which you helped negotiate. What message does this send to the small island nations you represent?

sealy: Although threatened, it hasn’t happened yet. As I formulate my responses to your questions, the USA remains in the Paris Agreement. The subsidiary bodies of the UNFCCC and the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement (APA) will meet in Bonn in May. By then, we hope to get a better idea of the role that the USA intends to play in future negotiations to implement the Agreement. Perhaps, the Trump Administration is recognizing that it may be prudent to remain engaged internationally on an issue that threatens its national security and provides substantial competitive advantage to whichever countries provide the technological solutions. The Paris Agreement is bigger than any one nation. Others may be eager to fill any leadership vacuum created by the withdrawal of the USA.

eco: The Green Climate Fund, which is supposed to provide $100 billion a year to help developing countries is being funded at closer to $2.5 billion a year. I know the agreement is non-binding, but are there plans to get this financing closer to the negotiated amount?

sealy: The developed countries have been reluctant to lay out a clear roadmap as to how they will achieve the floor of US$100 billion per year of climate finance. Current pledges to the GCF amount to less than US$3 billion per year up to the end of 2018. There are also concerns about the difficulty of accessing the GCF funds and SIDS will call for easier access at the negotiations in May. What defines Climate Finance (grants vs. loans vs. private sector finance) is also to be agreed. Is the US$100 billion per year separate and additional to the Official Development Assistance (ODA) promised under the Monterrey Consensus? Note that there is already a deficit of over US$100 billion per year in the promised ODA (target of 0.7% of the GDI of the members of the OECD). Recent signals from the Trump Administration appear to indicate that the USA may reduce its development assistance to foreign countries, which is not good news for climate financing.

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eco: There is also some momentum in the U.S. to defund Earth orbiting satellites and remove climate data from public websites. How important is access to these data to negotiators and decision makers?

sealy: It is critical that all scientific data are preserved. U. S. organizations like NOAA and the USEPA have provided valuable data to the negotiators and policy makers. Small islands in particular are guided by the latest science in our negotiations; hence, our push for a limit to warming of 1.5°C rather than 2°C. If, for whatever reason, research institutions in the USA were to lose their capacity to either store their existing climate data or to gather new data, it would be imperative that other major nations with access to remote sensing technology (e.g., satellites) fill the void.

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Launched in 2014, NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-2) measures carbon dioxide from space. High resolution data files showing sources and sinks of CO2 are available to the public online. Image courtesy of NASA JPL.

 

eco: Recently, a study suggested that we could refreeze the Arctic by using 10 million wind-powered pumps over the ice cap to spray sea water over the surface and replenish the sea ice. Why should we focus addressing the source, instead of treating the symptoms?

Sealy: Because prevention is always better than the cure. In this case, some of the suggested cures appear to be fraught with unknown consequences. I am already concerned that most of the models being run by our climate scientists assume that there will be technologies deployed in the future that will create “negative emissions.” This over reliance on unproven future technologies is, in my personal opinion, a failure of the scientific community to address the urgent challenge that we face to rapidly decarbonize our economies and achieve net zero emissions by 2050 at the latest.

eco: While island nations are in danger, a January 2017 report from NOAA (Global and Regional Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States) reiterates projections that the Northeast Atlantic coast of the U.S. is expected to experience a greater relative sea level rise than the global average. The U.S. Navy, city leaders, many scientists, and even large insurance providers, take this seriously. Why aren’t policy makers at the state and national level doing the same?

Sealy: The recent report that you speak of now predicts between 0. 3 and 2.5 meters of global mean sea level rise by 2100. There is an obvious lag between scientific consensus and political action. Why? Firstly, those that will be negatively affected by a change in the status quo have done their upmost to obfuscate the science. The current fallback position of this deliberately disruptive group is that climate change is happening but the cause is still uncertain.

Secondly, no one country or block of countries (e.g., EU) wants to move out of sync with its major trading partners and lose a perceived short-term competitive advantage. A top-down approach of allocating the remaining global carbon budget has proven to be elusive. Instead, we have settled on a voluntary, bottom-up approach. Fortunately, some countries (e.g., China) have recognized the environmental and public health co-benefits from transitioning away from carbon-intensive fuels. Thirdly, the governments of large emerging economies still see the eradication of poverty as their top priority and do not have the capacity to “decouple” their needed economic growth from increased GHG emissions without significant assistance from the developed countries.

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Small low-lying islands in the open ocean, like the Maldives, are sensitive to rising ocean levels. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2013) projects that the Maldives could lose almost 80 percent of its land area by 2100.

 

eco: Given differences in sea level rise rates across the globe, what does this mean insofar as cooperation between island representatives? Are there divided factions?

Sealy: There is absolutely no division within AOSIS. We are all in the same boat.

eco: These numbers could change due to any number of feedback mechanisms, from increased melting of the Antarctic or Greenland ice sheets to shifts in ocean currents. How big of a role do climate models play in your negotiations and how do you keep up to date on this evolving situation?

sealy: Within AOSIS, it is part of our standard operating procedures to have regular updates on the latest science. These updates are provided both from our internal scientific community and from invited experts. A number of our negotiators are themselves scientists or engineers. Our negotiating positions are guided by the science. This is why it was AOSIS that called for urgent pre-2020 action and created the Global Climate Action Agenda and the Champions.

eco: Which climate change solutions to do you think the international community should invest in most heavily?

sealy: A “Marshall Plan” is needed to stop burning fossil fuels and to provide “green” energy in all of the major emitting countries for both electricity generation and transport. At the same time, we need to begin to develop, test, and implement negative emissions technologies with the objective of achieving net zero emissions by 2050 at the latest. A global financial architecture is required to allow large flows of concessionary financing (grants and low interest loans) from developed to developing countries to enable wide-scale mitigation and adaptation efforts.

eco: Part of your job could be defined as science communication. What lessons have you learned about engaging the public on these issues? How can we turn monologues into dialogues when it comes to climate change and sea level rise?

sealy: There is scientific consensus. There has been for decades. The public is now convinced. It’s the politicians that are constrained by either powerful interests or a lack of fiscal space (or both) to effect the needed transformation. I have found that I am most persuasive if I can personalize climate change. Unfortunately, that is becoming easier as the effects of climate change become more evident.

References:
For more information on the UNFCCC CDM, visit https://cdm.unfccc.int.

For more about the Green Climate Fund, visit www.greenclimate.fund/home.

The NOAA Report referenced in this article is NOAA Technical Report NOS CO-OPS 083, Global and Regional Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States, January 2017, retrieved from https://tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov/publications/techrpt83_Global_and_Regional_SLR_Scenarios_for_the_US_final.pdf.

 

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