My two-year, 26-country journey to the frontlines of the climate battle

It was a climate summit that made Mohamed Nasheed a star. Ahead of the UN’s annual COP conference in Copenhagen in 2009, the president of the Maldives grabbed headlines worldwide by chairing an underwater cabinet meeting, with ministers attending in scuba gear. The stunt was intended to highlight the serious danger that, if carbon emissions continued at the same rate, the Maldives’ 1,000-plus atoll islands would be entirely submerged by a rising ocean.

Copenhagen was the first COP (Conference of the Parties) to take place during the presidency of Barack Obama, who had pledged to halt the world’s slide towards climate catastrophe. Many hoped for an unprecedented international breakthrough in the Danish capital. Amid this atmosphere, the diminutive Nasheed made an outsized impact. Addressing a crowd of cheering activists, he declared, “I am here to tell you that we refuse to give up hope . . . we refuse to believe that a better world isn’t possible.”

In the end, the 2009 talks collapsed. The national delegations agreed only to “take note” of a flimsy document that declared action on climate change to be important, with some vague promises from rich countries to support poorer ones. Nasheed continued to push for climate action, before losing power in an alleged coup. After a period in exile, he returned home in late 2018 and redoubled his efforts to drive international action that could save his country from obliteration.

Yet when we met in the capital Malé in 2019, Nasheed expressed doubt that the UN’s annual climate summit can deliver meaningful change. “They’ve made an industry out of it,” he told me in his modest office above a congested little street. “Some of these people have children who are born into the COP. They’ve made a whole consultation industry — people running around with files and university degrees and being extremely clever and articulate. It’s surreal to see it. They are spending $100m on any of these conferences.”

Despite his scepticism, and though he was critically injured in a bomb attack in May, Nasheed will again be among the delegates at this year’s COP26 in Glasgow, which begins on October 31. But he told me that the COP approach, which depends upon nearly 200 countries reaching unanimous consensus, is a recipe for failure. “Unless you change the structure and the ground rules, this is not going to work,” he said. “Why can’t willing countries come together and go forward? I can’t see why we are waiting for every single person to agree that we should not die.”

Simon Mundy crossing a valley in Mongolia’s Uvs province, which has recently hit by unusually severe winters — scientists have linked this to ice melt in the Arctic © Alice Wang

Many share his concerns about the chances of a serious breakthrough. While the 2015 Paris conference was hailed for achieving a multilateral commitment to keep global warming below 2C, limited progress has been made towards binding international frameworks that will make this actually happen.

Even after President Joe Biden reversed his predecessor’s withdrawal from the Paris accord, many fear that the partisan debate over climate action in the US will block ambitious action there. And despite Xi Jinping’s domestic agenda for “ecological civilisation”, some worry that China is determined to build a low-carbon economy on its own terms, rather than by binding itself to tough multilateral agreements.

Leaders of developing countries highlight rich countries’ broken promise to deliver $100bn in annual climate-related assistance by 2020 and fret about measures that could penalise their often carbon-intensive economies. Meanwhile, corporate figures are preparing to flock to Glasgow in huge numbers, leaving attendees on lower budgets unable to find accommodation and stoking fears that the event will become just another Davos-style talking shop.

Millions of words will be written and spoken about the discussions in Glasgow. But behind the rhetoric and grandstanding, the greatest race in human history is under way: to contain the damage wrought by climate crisis. My meeting with Nasheed came during a two-year journey I made to uncover the human stories playing out within this historic contest. In 26 countries on six continents, I encountered billionaire tycoons and drought-hit herders, hedge-fund managers and mammoth-tusk hunters. All of them are playing their part in a struggle that is already reshaping the world.

With his full grey mane and thick beard, Konrad “Koni” Steffen was a throwback to an earlier, buccaneering generation of polar scientists for whom research meant disappearing into an icy wilderness for months on end. When we met in the Greenland fishing village of Ilulissat in August last year, he had spent three decades charting the extraordinary shifts in the ice sheet that covers four-fifths of the world’s biggest island. Steffen had become famous as the creator of Swiss Camp, an outpost on the ice sheet that attracted visits from European and US political leaders, and where he returned every spring to conduct research with a group of graduate students.

Swiss Camp had a kitchen, sleeping quarters and a propane-fired sauna, sitting on a wooden platform that rested on the ice, buttressed by poles driven deep beneath the surface. In the evenings, the researchers would assemble at a round table for dinner, the conversation going long into the polar night. “Everyone has their turn to cook and we’re very strict: it has to be a three-course dinner,” Steffen said. “If you work 14 hours outside, you’re hungry.”

The atmosphere among his team was often gregarious, but they worked hard, and their findings were increasingly shocking. During the first two decades of Steffen’s work at Swiss Camp, the average winter temperature there increased by 7.3C, driving an increasingly rapid shrinkage of the Greenlandic ice sheet. As the melt beneath it accelerated, Swiss Camp’s foundation poles, which once penetrated several metres into the ice, now held the platform high above the ground like a house on stilts. One spring Steffen returned to find the whole structure had collapsed. He rebuilt it, only for the same thing to happen again a few years later.

As Nepal’s glaciers melt, lakes such as Tsho Rolpa have mushroomed in scale in recent decades. Floods now threaten thousands of people living in the valleys beneath them
As Nepal’s glaciers melt, lakes such as Tsho Rolpa have mushroomed in scale in recent decades. Floods now threaten thousands of people living in the valleys beneath them © Simon Mundy

It wasn’t just on the surface that the ice sheet was changing. From GPS readings, Steffen realised the ice beneath Swiss Camp was sliding toward the sea far more rapidly than expected, thanks to meltwater lubricating its movement against the bedrock. As the ice moved faster, it was stretching and splitting apart, opening deep cracks in the surface. “Thirty years ago there was not a single crevasse in the area,” he said. “Now, every 50 metres we have a crevasse big enough to put the whole Ski-Doo [snowmobile] in there. It’s no longer safe to walk around.”

At 68, Steffen was approaching retirement and Swiss Camp was entering its final chapter, set for demolition this year. No other scientist was willing to take responsibility for the camp, although other researchers planned to fly in occasionally to maintain the measurement instruments that Steffen had installed across the ice.

The data from those instruments, he told me, were far more alarming than most people, and most policymakers, seemed to understand. According to a 2019 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global average sea level is likely to rise this century by between 26 and 110 centimetres. Anything within that range will have serious consequences for coastal populations.

Yet Steffen — a lead author of the IPCC report — told me the reality could be far worse. Any report from the IPCC is “very conservative”, he said. “Otherwise it would never be authorised by all the governments. But the inside knowledge is, it could be one metre, it could be two and a half metres, to be honest. The one metre is almost guaranteed, even if we stopped all CO2 emissions today.”

For all the grim import of his work, Steffen was buzzing at the thought of returning to Swiss Camp the next day for a final scientific expedition. Yet again, the camp had collapsed above the shifting ice, and he and his companions would need to set up a temporary camp amid an unseasonably severe snowstorm. “And then” — his eyes sparkled — “we start the science again.”

Three days after arriving at Swiss Camp, Steffen left his companions working on the ice to walk to a measuring station a short distance away. The heavy snowfall had resumed and they quickly lost sight of him; when he didn’t come back they assumed he had gone to his tent to rest. But on their return to the camp after several hours, there was no sign of him.

They retraced his steps, which terminated at one of the treacherous crevasses that he had described to me, carved into the ice by the force of global warming. At its bottom was a newly formed hole, two metres long, leading into a water chamber within the ice sheet. They knew immediately that there would be no chance of finding him alive.

Qaanaaq, in Greenland, is the main settlement of the Inughuit people – accelerated Arctic warming is casting doubt on the future of centuries-old ice-hunting traditions
Qaanaaq, in Greenland, is the main settlement of the Inughuit people — accelerated Arctic warming is casting doubt on the future of centuries-old ice-hunting traditions © Simon Mundy

Despite his huge impact in scientific circles, Steffen was acutely conscious of the limited progress he and other researchers had made in forcing serious action by policymakers at summits such as COP where they repeatedly failed to take radical measures to move the global economy away from fossil fuels. “I know it’s scary,” he told me, before a shopping trip to buy supplies for what became his last expedition. “But we have to change.”

From Greenland’s west coast, I travelled 1,400km east to a craggy expanse of southern Iceland and a case study in a new breed of seemingly outlandish technological fixes that, to a growing number of climate experts, now look like potentially vital tools. “We’re past the point of having the luxury to debate this,” said Edda Sif Pind Aradóttir, chief executive of Reykjavik-based Carbfix. “We have to take action. We absolutely have to take all the steps we can.”

Now in her mid-thirties, Aradóttir has spent her entire career working on a concept long viewed by many as quixotic: tackling climate change by turning carbon dioxide into inert underground stone. We met at the Hellisheiði power station, Iceland’s biggest geothermal plant, which provides Reykjavik with electricity as well as scalding hot water. Nestled in the lee of a hulking volcanic outcrop, the plant’s chimneys sent languid tongues of steam into the late summer sky, suffusing it with the eggy smell of sulphur from the basalt bedrock beneath. That bedrock, Aradóttir told me, has the capacity to lock away more than 3tn tonnes of carbon dioxide under the Icelandic soil: double the amount that humanity has emitted since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

‘We’re past the point of having the luxury to debate this – we have to take action’: Edda Sif Pind Aradóttir, CEO of Carbfix, at a geothermal power plant in southern Iceland
‘We’re past the point of having the luxury to debate this — we have to take action’: Edda Sif Pind Aradóttir, CEO of Carbfix, at a geothermal power plant in southern Iceland © Simon Mundy

To her, the theory behind her work is elementary. For millions of years, the basalt under Iceland has been sequestering carbon dioxide dissolved in water, turning it to limestone through a natural chemical reaction. Scientists had long assumed that this took place over centuries. Aradóttir’s team at Carbfix, a subsidiary of state-owned Reykjavik Energy, has carried out experiments showing that when carbon dioxide-rich water was injected into underground stone formations near Hellisheiði, 95 per cent of it became stone within just two years. Similar formations are found all over the world, including great swaths of the ocean floor. If these were exploited, it could be possible to put the carbon cycle into reverse, at an industrial scale. The question now was how to get hold of the carbon.

That question was answered in 2016 at COP22 in Marrakech, where Olafur Ragnar Grímsson, a former Icelandic president and early supporter of Carbfix, got talking to a curly-haired young German engineer with an intriguing business. By this point, it had been seven years since Christoph Gebald had set up his company, Climeworks, with his college friend Jan Wurzbacher. Earlier than most, the two had focused on the negative side of the “net zero” ledger. Since humanity was set to keep pumping carbon into the atmosphere for decades, they agreed, there was a dire need for technology to suck it back out.

They faced scepticism from the start. “Nine out of 10 people were just punching us in the face,” Gebald told me. But they raised enough cash to design and start making their carbon “collectors”: steel cubes about two metres on each side, with a fan at one end and an air vent at the other. Inside each is a sort of sieve coated with a chemical substance that absorbs carbon dioxide from the air sucked in by the fan. When the filter is saturated — several times a day — the box closes and starts heating to about 100C. The heat detaches the carbon molecules from the filter, and the box fills with pure carbon dioxide that can be piped away for disposal.

Carbfix and Climeworks quickly hatched plans for an integrated pilot plant that would extract carbon dioxide from the air and lock it away for good. In September they unveiled Orca, an expanded plant at Hellisheiði with 80 collectors, each able to extract 50 tonnes of carbon a year. The annual emissions caused by all human activities — of carbon dioxide alone, excluding other greenhouse gases — amount to well over 30bn tonnes. But if the world decided to pursue direct air capture on a massive scale, it would be easily possible, Gebald insists. Each box is roughly the size and weight of a family car, and less complicated to produce, he notes. And the world manages to make nearly 100m cars a year without trouble.

Climeworks is already selling carbon-offset certificates and its larger clients include Audi, Microsoft and Bill Gates, who boasted of having bought enough to get a volume discount. The price it advertises is above $1,000 per tonne of carbon sequestered. This will come down dramatically as it hones the technology and builds economies of scale. Yet even its target price of $100 is orders of magnitude above forestry-based offset schemes, which often offer prices below $5 per tonne, but which face huge scepticism from many experts over their true impact.

At the vast AGL Loy Yang coal mine and power plant in Victoria, Australia, Paul Barrand is overseeing a project to use brown coal to make hydrogen for zero-emissions vehicles
At the vast AGL Loy Yang coal mine and power plant in Victoria, Australia, Paul Barrand is overseeing a project to use brown coal to make hydrogen for zero-emissions vehicles © Simon Mundy

For many experts, the central focus in Glasgow should be a push for a serious global carbon-pricing system, with all goods and services taxed on their carbon footprints, which could be offset through rigorously assessed negative-emissions schemes. This could empower market forces to deal with some of the most complex challenges in the climate struggle. And if that system comes into being, the likes of Christoph Gebald could become very wealthy indeed.

My journey opened my eyes to the scale of the climate-change effects already wreaking havoc all over the world. In Ethiopia I spent time with Afar herders whose flocks had been devastated by protracted drought followed by an unprecedented locust invasion. I met coffee farmers in the hills of northern Nicaragua who had been hit by a record-breaking pair of late-season hurricanes. I saw how saltwater intrusion is shattering rice-farming communities in south-western Bangladesh, with villagers pouring in vast numbers into the overcrowded slums of Dhaka.

I found another extraordinary set of stories in the Solomon Islands, which were named after the prodigiously wealthy biblical king by 16th-century Spanish sailors who had sailed 13,500km from Peru, driven by Inca tales of gold from the western ocean. Today the name carries an ironic tinge: the people of these 900 islands, stretching between Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, have among the lowest incomes in the South Pacific. And now they face a sea-level rise at a pace greater than almost anywhere else on Earth.

In the Solomon Islands, Isaac Lekelalu is in charge of moving Taro, the capital of Choiseul province, to a new site in this forest that will be more resilient to climate change
In the Solomon Islands, Isaac Lekelalu is in charge of moving Taro, the capital of Choiseul province, to a new site in this forest that will be more resilient to climate change © Simon Mundy

In the past few decades, the ocean has been rising around the archipelago by nearly a centimetre each year. That’s about triple the global average rate, with scientists attributing the faster pace to changes in wind patterns, which in turn have been linked to global warming. The Solomon Islands offer a valuable window into the effects of sea-level rise at a scale the rest of the world will experience before long. For several communities I visited there, the situation has already become desperate. And in Taro, the island capital of north-western Choiseul province, I found a project of a sort that looks set to become increasingly common as this century progresses: the relocation of an entire community.

The plan to move the township has become an obsession for Geoffrey Pakipota, Choiseul’s provincial secretary, a grave, white-haired 49-year-old. I found him in the yard behind his home, taking a rest day after a week of meetings to seek support for the project. Pakipota rose from his hammock to show me the shoreline erosion closing in on his and other houses on Taro’s eastern edge. Just a few paces away, the cracked grey earth gave way to a mass of roots, tangled like electrical wires, that protruded over a tiny beach of stones lapped by the water. Several metres out to sea was the site of the old marketplace, one of a growing number of buildings lost to the waves.

Every one of the Taro residents I spoke to supports the relocation plan. They no longer feel safe on this island, which is too small and getting smaller. The full cost of building the new capital, however, is far beyond the modest provincial budget. Even the national government can hardly afford to fund Pakipota’s plans, which will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The whole country’s gross domestic product is just $1.55bn — about $2,500 per inhabitant. But if the national leadership throws itself behind the relocation project, the Choiseul government hopes it could win some of the billions in funding that major economies have promised to help developing nations adapt to climate change.

At Alpha Beach, near Lagos,  powerful sea surges have pushed the shoreline dozens of metres inland and devastated this once-thriving resort
At Alpha Beach, near Lagos, powerful sea surges have pushed the shoreline dozens of metres inland and devastated this once-thriving resort © Simon Mundy

In theory, the solution to Pakipota’s conundrum could come from the Green Climate Fund (GCF), set up to deliver on one of the vital principles of international climate talks: that rich countries, the principal drivers of this crisis, should help poorer ones deal with the fallout. On the day I arrived in the Solomon Islands, the GCF and the World Bank signed a financing agreement on a major new hydro-electric plant to power Honiara, the national capital. Officials in Honiara and Taro said the Choiseul relocation seems like precisely the kind of thing the GCF ought to be supporting — but they didn’t show much hope that it will do so. Of the cash so far allocated by the GCF, much more has gone to fund renewable energy projects in developing countries than to assist them in coping with the impacts of climate change.

Yet in small communities like Choiseul, international bodies have an opportunity to gain experience in supporting the kind of relocation work that will be needed in coastal areas throughout the world. Until that funding comes, the Taro move will remain the pipe dream of an increasingly desperate provincial government. “It doesn’t matter where the money comes from,” Watson Qoloni, Choiseul’s premier, told me in the administration’s tiny office complex, maps of the future township pinned to the wall behind him. “Whether it comes from God or Satan, we’ll take it.”

Whatever the outcome of COP26, there will be no halting the shift towards a lower-carbon model that is already sending shockwaves through the global economy. Some of the world’s most powerful economic interests are being threatened, and a raft of innovators and inventors have heard the call. I met shale drillers in Texas who now work for a start-up using fracking technology for renewable energy storage and a top cardiac scientist in Israel who has deployed her discoveries to drive a company growing eco-friendly beef in bioreactors.

I visited China’s billionaire electric-car tycoon He Xiaopeng, who told me of his plans to take on Tesla, and Saudi energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, who vowed his kingdom would carve out a powerful role in the clean-energy era.

Under its Vision 2030 drive to diversify beyond oil, Saudi Arabia is aiming to massively expand its renewable-energy capacity with eight new solar plants, such as this one in Al-Jawf province
Under its Vision 2030 drive to diversify beyond oil, Saudi Arabia is aiming to massively expand its renewable-energy capacity with eight new solar plants, such as this one in Al-Jawf province © Simon Mundy

The drive to reduce emissions is not always perfectly aligned with other crucial priorities. As any major industry should, the clean-tech sector is coming under increasing scrutiny for its impacts on vulnerable societies around the globe. Solar-panel producers face tough questions over their exposure to suppliers using forced labour in China’s Xinjiang province. There are serious concerns about the local impacts of mining for resources crucial to the green economy — from water-intensive lithium extraction in Chile, to heavily polluting nickel mining in Indonesia.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a poor and unstable nation that is home to most of the world’s known reserves of cobalt, a substance crucial to the production of electric-car batteries, I spoke to Celestin Mwema Kabanga, who was 13 when he began searching for cobalt ore deep underground. “Many people broke bones down there,” he said. “Many died. I was in fear all the time I was working because the mines would collapse from time to time.”

Glasgow delegates would do well to keep in mind the troubles of children like Celestin, no less than the warnings of scientists like Koni Steffen, and the promise of innovators like Edda Aradóttir. The drive to cut carbon emissions must not be viewed in isolation from other critical global problems, from public health to economic inequality.

By forcing a questioning of the fundamental structures that underpin modern civilisation, the climate crisis has brought an unparalleled opportunity to put the global economy on a course that is more truly just and equitable, as well as safer and cleaner. The challenge for those at COP26 is to begin that work in earnest.

Simon Mundy is the FT’s Moral Money Editor. His book “Race for Tomorrow: Survival, Innovation and Profit on the Front Lines of the Climate Crisis” is out now

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