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U.N. Warns “Climate Time Bomb Is Ticking” as Cyclone Freddy Death Toll Tops 560 in Malawi & Mozambique

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In a major new report released Monday, the United Nations is calling for immediate and drastic cuts to greenhouse gas emissions in order to stop global warming. The “final warning” by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change comes as the death toll from Cyclone Freddy just swept through southeast Africa, killing hundreds of people and displacing hundreds of thousands more. Climate justice activist Dipti Bhatnagar with Friends of the Earth Mozambique describes it as “yet another reminder that climate impacts are not in the future but very much happening to our communities right now.” We also continue our conversation with environmental activists Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, and Ben Jealous, executive director of the Sierra Club.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

As we continue to look at the climate emergency, we turn to southeast Africa, where Tropical Cyclone Freddy has killed over 500 people in Malawi and at least 66 people in Mozambique. Over half a million people have been displaced. Cyclone Freddy, one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere and the longest-lasting tropical cyclone on record. It first made landfall in Madagascar on February 19th.

We’re joined by Dipti Bhatnagar, longtime climate justice activist based in Mozambique. She’s with Friends of the Earth Mozambique. She lives in Mozambique but is now visiting the Bay Area. We are staying with Bill McKibben of Third Act and 350.org and Ben Jealous, who’s now head of the Sierra Club.

Dipti, talk about what’s happened in your country, in your region, and how it relates to climate change.

DIPTI BHATNAGAR: Hi, Amy. Hi, everyone. Thanks for having me on.

As you’ve already spoken about, Cyclone Freddy is yet another reminder that climate impacts are not in the future but very much happening to our communities right now. Almost a million people have been affected in Mozambique, and 1.6 million across the region. And, you know, this has come on top of what was already a cholera epidemic, what was already flooding happening in southern Mozambique, including affecting my own house. In early February, the climate impacts were already happening. So, when Cyclone Freddy hit for the first time around the 24th of February, and then it went back out again into the Mozambique Channel and then came back and hit again, you know, this is hitting land that is completely saturated, hitting people that are completely saturated, without any kinds of reserves. So, the climate impacts are happening right now to people. And it’s not just one. It’s happening over and over and over again.

And climate change is supercharging these cyclones. They’re being able to survive longer on land. They’re being able to go out again into the ocean and come back in, which is what we saw with Cyclone Idai, the really destructive cyclone in 2019. And now we see this pattern again. This cyclone is one of the most supercharged cyclones. It’s lasted the longest. And it has hit Mozambique already twice. And it is affecting people who are already living on the edge, Amy, who have really nothing more to be able to give. They’re struggling to survive.

And this is why what the IPCC report says about the urgency of the situation is absolutely critical. But we are seeing communities, people that have no historical responsibility for creating this crisis, and they’re the ones that are being affected, while the rich countries just continue to undermine historical responsibility and equity while the climate negotiations and the IPCC negotiations are going on, and it’s just absolutely heartbreaking to see what is happening on the ground.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can talk about this report that has just come out today, the IPCC report, and the significance of what they’re saying has to happen right now, Dipti?

DIPTI BHATNAGAR: So, the IPCC’s science is very, very clear in talking about this rapidly closing window of opportunity. That is something that we need to take heed, as Bill was talking about. We’re seeing expansion of fossil fuels, not just in the Arctic, in Alaska, with the Willow project — absolutely shocking — but also in Mozambique. One of the countries most affected by the climate crisis is also where one of the largest gas fields that has been found anywhere in the world in the last 10 years has been found. And Total and others are going ahead with it. And the Mozambican government is also complicit. So we need to be stopping dirty energy everywhere in the world.

And my group, which is Justiça Ambiental — I’m actually on sabbatical from Friends of the Earth International; I’m representing Justiça Ambiental, Friends of the Earth Mozambique. And my group has been fighting against oil and gas in northern Mozambique since 2007, working in the province of Cabo Delgado, where fossil fuels are not only causing climate change, but they’re displacing communities. They’re causing human rights violations. They’re triggering conflict and militarization and insurgencies all across the continent, including in Mozambique. So this is what we need to be fighting against.

And the IPCC definitely talks about the need for emissions reductions, but one of the things that’s really scary, Amy, is that this whole notion of carbon dioxide removals is playing such a key role now in the IPCC report. And this is really problematic, because this is opening the door to false climate solutions, false solutions. This is not the way to go. And what this is going to do is — they’re talking about overshoot. The word “overshoot” appears 23 times in the summary for policymakers in the IPCC report that’s released today. And what they’re trying to say is, “Oh, don’t worry. You know, we could cross 1.5 degrees Celsius average global temperature rise, but we’ll bring it back down. We might have an overshoot. We’ll bring it back down with carbon dioxide removal.”

And this is really dangerous, because how are they going to do the removal? Why are they doing the removal? Because they do not want to stop fossil fuels. They want to continue business as usual. The elites want to continue to gain in the ways that they’re doing. And what they’re going to do, and what they’re already doing, is grab lands and forests from communities in the Global South, including in Mozambique, to be able to offset these emissions. And it’s going to create another crisis on top of the fossil fuel crisis that we’re seeing in Africa and the climate impacts that we’re already seeing.

So, we need to be so wary and push against this carbon dioxide removal and these false solutions. And we say stop emissions at source, count consumption emissions, deal with historical responsibility, finance for communities. This is how we will be able to deal with the climate crisis and stop people’s suffering.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Bill McKibben in on the United Nations issuing its “final warning” that the world is facing its last chance to prevent catastrophic global warming. The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, that Dipti is referring to, said Monday every increment of warming will amplify impacts already felt by millions worldwide. Talk about what stood out most for you in today's report.

BILL McKIBBEN: What stood out most for me was the fact that, in some ways, there’s nothing new there. Look, Amy, I wrote the first book about all of this back in 1989, and there really isn’t anything that we know now of great importance that we didn’t know then. That means that if you’re reading that report and you’re feeling desperate about it, really the only thing that makes a difference at this point is to get up and say something, to act.

That’s why people will be out in the streets today. And some of it will be fun. You know, we’ve got orcas eating credit cards in Seattle and Big Foot bashing credit cards in Portland, and in Alaska they’re cutting up credit cards with chainsaws, and people on rocking chairs here in D.C. That’s the kind of response that we need from people all over the world, because, look, otherwise, it’s just words on paper. Everybody has heard it at this point. Everybody understands that we’re in a desperate fix.

The good news — and this really is the good news — that fix is no longer necessary in any way. We live now on a planet where the cheapest way, all of a sudden, to generate power is to point a sheet of glass at the sun. The only reason we’re not making change fast is because, as our colleague from Mozambique points out so beautifully, it’s in the interest of the fossil fuel industry to keep digging stuff up and setting it on fire. We don’t need to. The good Lord hung a large ball of burning gas 93 million miles up in the sky, and we now know how to make full use of it, and we could.

That’s what we’re pushing for today, a dramatic change in investment away from coal and gas and oil and toward sun and the wind and the batteries to store them when the sun goes down and the wind drops. That’s our future if we choose to seize it. If we don’t — if we don’t, then every grim line on those graphs in that U.N. report is going to come to life and haunt our kids for their entire lives.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben Jealous, I’m wondering if you can take us on a throughline from the IPCC warning today back to when you began as a journalist in Mississippi covering Cancer Alley, through to East Palestine, where we see this massive dump of chemicals from the fossil fuel industry in this train derailment, contaminating an entire community, how this all links to climate change.

BEN JEALOUS: You know, the biggest subsidies in the history of our country of industry has been our government’s willingness to declare most places and most people — all people of color and, frankly, most white people, too, because most white people are working-class or poor — as disposable. And you see it in places like Mississippi. You see it in places like the Gulf Coast of Alabama.

When I was a young reporter at the Jackson Advocate newspaper, I was covering the destruction of a community in Columbia, Mississippi. And a group down there called Jesus People Against Pollution, that had been formed because a factory that was producing Agent Orange had blown up back in the era of the Vietnam War, and when they cleaned up the chemicals, they put them into 55-gallon steel drums, and they buried them in the water table. And here we were 30 years after that, 25 years after that, and kids had tumors, had cancerous tumors over them. You would go not far from there to a pulp mill, and you would see on the way all the forests that were being clear-cut. And when you got to the pulp mill, what was coming out so oxidized the cars that if you rubbed your hand across the hoods of the cars, it looked like a Jackson Pollock painting. The paint was just peeling off the cars because of what was coming out of that pulp mill. Well, the same thing was going into these kids’ respiratory systems. So, the little kids, their noses just ran all day. And you knew that was because there was caustic chemicals.

And what this all speaks to at the end of the day is what Bill’s talking about, is our country’s addiction to using, frankly, dangerous petrochemicals in ways that we really don’t need to be using them, transporting them in ways that are extremely unsafe, as you see in East Palestine. But it also speaks to our country’s addiction, quite frankly, to burning stuff in order to power our country, which is ridiculous. Honestly, it’s a better deal for the people of this country if we power our country through renewables on multiple levels. It’s healthier, absolutely. It’s healthier for the climate. It creates more jobs here. It keeps more money in people’s pocket.

This Inflation Reduction Act has given us a massive amount of capital to actually build the economy of the future. We are within sight of building an economy where we are creating more jobs, frankly, sustaining the planet than destroying its places, than destroying its people, than destroying the planet itself. And what we need the banks to do is to do what they do when they’re at their best, which is to bet on a better future for all of us. Right now they’re betting against all of us by continuing, frankly, to finance our expanding addiction to oil and gas right when it should be shrinking.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill, you write, “It took decades to force banks to abandon racist redlining. We don’t have decades to avert catastrophic climate [crisis].” We just recently came from the U.N. climate summit in Egypt, in Sharm el-Sheikh. There, you’re not allowed to protest inside the COP without permission. Now you’re protesting outside the banks, cutting up your credit cards. Your new group is called the Third Act, old and bold. What is the Third Act that you will be taking on around climate change?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, Third Act recognizes that young people have been providing the climate leadership, young people and people from frontline communities, Indigenous communities. What they lack sometimes is the structural power to force change at the pace that we need. Older people have structural power coming out our ears. There are 70 million Americans over the age of 60. That is a sleeping giant. That’s more people than live in France. And multiply it by some factor, because we all vote. There is no known way to stop old people from voting. And not only that, we ended up with a lot of the resources. The boomers and the Silent Generation have something like 70% of the country’s financial assets. So, if you want to push around Washington or Wall Street, it’s probably good to have a few people with hairlines like mine.

And in the last year, since we’ve started Third Act, Amy, people have been showing up everywhere. And now they’re building beautiful coalitions, with the Sierra Club, with Stop the Money Pipeline, with all our other partners. There are 50 groups, including youth from all over the country, the Sunrise Movement and Fridays for the Future. I just heard from Greta Thunberg overnight, saying, “Good luck, and go for it.”

Everybody is pitching in to make today the beginning of a big campaign to hold capital really accountable. Look, this is an overwhelming force in the life of the world, as we’ve learned in the last couple of weeks watching these bank escapades. We need them acknowledging risk of all kinds — financial risk and also the overwhelming risk to our planet, our species, our civilization, that comes in the form of climate change. We need them to remember that the economy is a subset of the Earth, and not the other way around.

If we can get that message through, if we can remind people today of the connection between cash and carbon — literally, somebody who has $125,000 in those banks is producing more money, because it’s being lent out for pipelines and frack wells, than all the cooking, flying, heating, driving, cooling that an average American does in a year. Five thousand dollars in the bank produces more carbon than flying back and forth across the country. So we need these banks to start acting responsibly. And we need it — well, the IPCC said we’re in the last act of this drama unless we stand up and move fast. That’s one of the things that Third Act is really about.

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