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The Climate in Review: May 2023 Edition

The Climate in Review: May 2023 Edition

As usual with our climate column, dozens of stories have been developing in the last few weeks, all of which impact our globe. Here, in the climate in review, we aim to give a general report on several of these happenings to help our readers key up on the most important climate headlines. 

Vietnam reaches record high temperatures

As a country, Vietnam is somewhat hotter than most of Europe and New Zealand but colder than other land masses boarding on the equator. Typically, the nation experiences temperatures of around 25-26℃, rising to as much as 34-35℃ at the height of summer. That’s why the new high of 44℃, recorded earlier this month, has experts worried. 

The record set in the northern province of Thanh Hoa had officials warning locals to stay indoors during the day, while farmers were forced to finish by 10:00 am to escape the harsh heat. 

This record temperature is not alone. Dhaka has recently hit some of the highest temperatures since the 1960s, whilst Spain reached nearly 39℃ last April, a new high for that month.

Experts also believe things will only continue to heat, with concerns that the global mean temperature will rise above 1.5C (from its current 1.1C) by some time in 2030. If that happens, we risk a runaway global catastrophe in which freak weather events will become even more rampant. 


Lawsuit for breaching climate laws

While we often cover stories of governments bending the rules of previous climate change laws (and there is one such example this month), there’s also good news on the climate action front.

Last December, the NZ Cabinet rejected the move to raise petrol and electricity costs, which has allowed big polluters the freedom to bank cheap credits and potentially baulk the current Climate Change Commission goals. Under the Emissions Trading Scheme, large carbon emitters should be paying on each tonne of their emissions as part of a scheme to penalise planet-heating pollution. This scheme is part of a wider effort to make heavy pollutants non-viable eventually. However, breaks in the system have reduced the effectiveness of such a scheme and can be seen to encourage large pollutants on NZ shores.

The good news is that the Lawyers for Climate Action are suing the NZ Cabinet for failing to uphold the Climate Change Response Act. If successful, the Cabinet may have to revise its current strategy to realign with domestic targets and the country’s promise to reach net zero by 2050. The lawyers argue that the government is failing to meet this legal requirement by allowing for adjustments in the carbon price.

By refuting the government’s decision to lessen its environmental safeguards through organisations such as the Lawyers for Climate Change, New Zealand has a better chance of honestly reaching this target.

Project Willow

Perhaps this month's biggest news has been the decision to go ahead with Project Willow. The Biden administration has allowed a controversial petroleum drilling scheme to take place in Alaska, which will release 9.2 million metric tons of planet-warming carbon pollution. The move also threatens the livelihood of numerous wildlife and native communities in some of the few untapped Alaskan areas.

As usual, supporters of the scheme have ignored any environmental concerns to focus on the thousands of jobs and increased revenue the move would make, eventually producing 1.5% of the country’s total oil.  

The decision from the original proposal has been altered to ‘strike a balance’ by allowing limited drill sites and lease agreements. However, the decision has been deemed by many as simply ‘not good enough’ in an administration that has continued to back out of its previous climate agreements in favour of increasing its revenue.

The social media platform TikTok has been used as a means of amazing millions of angry protesters. The counter-argument has also been made that Project Willow will do little to address inflation or high energy costs in the short term. The promised oil will take years to develop, locking the country into a commitment that won’t be easy, financially, to back out of.

One thing that’s clear from this is that Biden has been playing both sides of the green issue, promising to accelerate clean energy whilst approving carbon-producing schemes. For now, protesters are urging people to sign the following petition to help reverse the decision to go ahead with Willow.


South Africa’s power cuts

Despite the country’s reported wealth, South Africa is facing some of the worst power cuts in its history. And it’s largely down to how the country has been running its economy and the increasing power held by crime cartels.

To understand the situation fully would take an article in itself, and we hope to expand on this topic more fully in later columns. The problem, in short, is tied to the country's dependence on fossil fuels and the perceived risk of switching over to renewable sources, even with the promise of undercutting the cartels. 

Eskom (a South African electricity public utility) provides nearly all of South Africa’s power while being forced to pay billions in municipal fees. The struggle to operate has left the company little choice but to organise ‘shedding’, local blackouts that have been getting longer and longer, with many South African residents preparing now to go weeks without power.

This also comes at a time when organised crimes are disrupting the power supply through coal fraud, diverting supplies to supplement with poor quality coal mixed with sand and stones. 

Eskom, established in 1923, has become infused with corruption since the end of the Mandela administration, with inflated contracts and political corruption, with power stations or maintenance contracts written up as a front. 

The ineptitude, corruption and illegal activities have led to the company running $14 billion in debt, with the South African government planning to take over half of this to restructure the crime-ridden company. Recently, the company has been replaced by privatisation, with the company recognised as the single biggest risk to the South African economy. 

One silver lining in all this has been the cut in carbon emissions during the shedding period, one which may result in South Africa going green to release itself of its coal dependency. And while the way this has been achieved is horrendous, there is at least some hope that the situation might turn into a force for good in the coal-dependent nation.


In lighter news…

As of April 2023, a phytoplankton bloom has been evident off the mid-Atlantic coast, visible from MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer). These minuscule life forms are responsible for nearly half of the ‘primary production’ on earth, converting carbon dioxide and providing the nutrients which feed almost all sea life. The death of all phytoplankton would exceed the loss of the Amazon regarding the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed and the number of natural habitats preserved. 

The sight is promising, especially since other corroborating evidence suggests that these are true phytoplankton blooms. At such a time when many major environmental projects are delayed to increase national revenue, it’s more important than ever that we can rid the planet of carbon. However, depending solely on other lifeforms to do the heavy lifting for us won’t work forever, particularly as global warming threatens to kill off ocean life due to a sudden change in the ocean’s temperatures. 

Doing what we can

While it’s not the same magnitude as the previous stories, Eartha was pleased to hold its first-ever beach cleanup on Saturday, May 13th. While we have been removing plastic from the oceans as part of our environmental initiative, the beach clean-up has been an organised effort to rally our community to head to the beaches and dedicate some time to Mother Earth.

We hope to be holding many more beach clean-ups in future. It’s up to us as individuals to keep our local landscape clean and, most importantly, force our governments and primary industries to adhere to clean policies.

Together, we aim to reach the environmental goal of net zero by 2050. 

Sites sourced:

  • “#StopWillow Is Taking Off on TikTok. But What Is the Willow Project? Here's What to Know.” on Global Citizen. Date Published: 10th March, 2023. Site Link: https://bit.ly/3O8ZRds
  • “Bloomin’ Atlantic” on earth observatory. Date Published: 20th April, 2023. Site Link: https://bit.ly/3W8T0T9.  
  • “Climate change: Vietnam records highest-ever temperature of 44.1C” on BBC News. Date Published: 8th May, 2023. Sitetps://bit.ly/41F1ySJ
  • Gibson, Eloise. “Government baulks at raising carbon price as cost of living bites” on Stuff. Date Published: 16th December, 2022. Site Link: https://bit.ly/3I8mPxq
  • Jacobs, Dhaun. “Eskom is being replaced” on My Broad Band. Date Published: 13th May, 2023. Site Link: https://bit.ly/3W8TFUD
  • Kumwenda-mtambo, Olivia, Roelf, Wendell, Gumbi, Kopano. “South Africa govt to take on half of struggling Eskom's debt” on Reuters. Date Published: 23rd January, 2023. Site Link: https://bit.ly/3BoF65K
  • Vasagar, Jeevan. “How the lights went out in South Africa” on Tortois. Date Published: 9th May, 2023. Site Link: https://bit.ly/3VZNSk4
  • Wannan, Oliva. “Government faces lawsuit for keeping a lid on price of gas, petrol” on Stuff. Date Published: 9th May, 2023. Site Link: https://bit.ly/3Ia8sZk.

About the Author

About the author - meet Earthan James McCulloch 

James is a literary student and environmental enthusiast who likes thinking about the better futures we could have (and those we best avoid). When not playing with other people’s dogs or taking long, mindful walks, he’s usually found reading and writing, often at the local library. You can check him out on his blog for something a little different, where he talks about all things literary or otherwise.

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