DeBriefed 13 October 2023: Israel and Hamas conflict hits oil prices; 1.5C ‘breached’; Lessons from India’s flash floods


Welcome to Carbon Brief’s DeBriefed. 
An essential guide to the week’s key developments relating to climate change.

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Crude geopolitics

VIOLENT SPIKE: The escalating conflict between Israel and Hamas drove global oil prices up this week, the Times reported. On Monday, Brent crude rose to $88.15 a barrel as markets feared “wider regional instability”, Al Jazeera reported. Amid the violence, Saudi Arabia could hold the “key” to global oil prices, said Bloomberg. On Wednesday, the leaders of Iran and Saudi Arabia discussed the “need to end war crimes against Palestine” in their first phone call since resuming ties, Reuters reported. US treasury secretary Janet Yellen indicated that additional sanctions on Iranian oil “could be coming”, the New York Times reported. 

SUBSEA SABOTAGE? Elsewhere, gas prices surged in response to fears that Russia sabotaged an undersea pipeline between Finland and Estonia, the Daily Telegraph reported. Finnish president Sauli Niinistö on Tuesday said the leak had signs of “external activity”, Politico reported, while Iltalehti reported that state and defence authorities suspected Russia being behind the attack.The loss of the pipeline could expose both Finland and Estonia to winter shortages, experts told the New York Times.

1.5C ‘breached’

NEW RECORD: According to an analysis published by BBC News, the world “breached” 1.5C, “a key warming threshold” for a record number of days this year, accounting for “about a third of days in 2023”. The broadcaster clarified that “breaching Paris [Agreement] thresholds doesn’t mean going over them for a day or a week, but instead involves going beyond this limit across a 20- or 30-year average”. Temperatures have also been driven up by the onset of El Niño conditions, the story added.

TEMPERATURE CHECK: Elsewhere, many climate scientists have been left puzzled by “Earth’s fever suddenly spik[ing] so high in September”, Inside Climate News reported. The lack of certainty has sent “a shiver of unease through parts of the climate science community”, with scientists “who have authored important climate science research together” contradicting one another, “at least partly”, about the possible causes, the publication said. Dr Zeke Hausfather, Carbon Brief’s climate science contributor, added that the September temperature spike is “certainly pushing the boundaries of model expectations”. 

  • HEAT ATTRIBUTED: Heat scorching large parts of South America in September was made “100 times more likely” by human-caused climate change, according to a new analysis by the World Weather Attribution initiative. 
  • NICKEL DROPS: New data showed that tropical forests occupying an area equivalent to the size of New York have been cleared across 329 nickel mines in Indonesia since 2017 as demand for nickel batteries has increased, the Financial Times reported.
  • COAL RECEIPTS: The Financial Times alleged that the influential Indian conglomerate the Adani Group “inflated” imported coal costs, leading to millions of Indian consumers and businesses overpaying for electricity. The group responded saying it uses an “open, transparent, global bidding process”.
  • ESKOM EXIT: Mpho Makwana has quit as chairman of South African power utility Eskom even as parts of the country reel from floods, Bloomberg reported. It has previously called the gig “the worst job in global energy”.

The number of countries that just had their hottest September on record, according to climate science initiative Berkeley Earth.

  • A new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that humans are “more vulnerable to moist heat stress than previously proposed”.
  • Warming oceans and oxygen loss could drive a centuries-long irreversible reduction in marine ecosystem habitability, with impacts lasting “well after global temperatures have peaked”, said new research in Nature Communications Earth & Environment.
  • Small Island Developing States could face flood damages 14 times higher than at present under a scenario of very high greenhouse gas emissions and no adaptation, according to a new Nature Sustainability study.

(For more, see Carbon Brief’s in-depth daily summaries of the top climate news stories on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.)

Amount of annual international climate finance provided by the UK from the financial year 2011/12 to 2022/23,

Carbon Brief analysis by Josh Gabbatiss found that the UK has fallen nearly 40% behind on its pledge to rapidly scale up climate finance for developing countries. Instead of increasing steadily to meet a £11.6bn target over five years, the UK’s climate spending abroad has fallen two consecutive years in a row and is off track by around £2bn. The chart above shows the amount of annual international climate finance provided by the UK from the financial year 2011/12 to 2022/23, indicated by the blue line. Dotted lines indicate the annual average spend that would be required to meet the £11.6bn goal by 2025/26, both from a starting point of 2020/21 (yellow) and a starting point of 2022/23 (red). This analysis is from a three-part Carbon Brief investigation into the UK’s international climate finance commitments. Read parts one, two and three – which was covered by the Guardian.

Lessons from Sikkim’s deadly flash floods

Devastating flash floods in India’s north-eastern Himalayan state of Sikkim claimed 37 lives last week, with scores still missing. In the aftermath, Carbon Brief looks at whether authorities were adequately prepared for such an event – and how it could be linked to climate change. 

The deadly floods that burst the largest dam in India’s smallest state – the 1,200 MW Teesta III project in Sikkim – have been at the centre of a charged debate on climate change and infrastructure development across the country, after a brutal monsoon in the Himalayan region.

While the event was initially characterised by Indian authorities as a “cloudburst” – an episode of heavy rain – scientists and meteorological experts later confirmed that the floods were caused by a breach of Sikkim’s “largest and the fastest-growing” South Lhonak glacial lake, during an event known as a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF). 

“Part of the slope next to the glacier fell and crashed into the lake like the wall of a house, creating a tsunami wave that eventually managed to overtop and erode the dam,” Jakob Steiner, a research fellow at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), told Carbon Brief.

This also caused parts of the glacier to collapse into the lake, he said. Permafrost has been thawing in the region and destabilising the barriers that once held the two kilometre-wide lake in place, he added.

Rainfall, while intense, was “not apocalyptic” in north Sikkim, he said, as data now confirms.

The South Lhonak GLOF had been modelled in a 2021 paper led by scientist Dr Ashim Sattar at the Divecha Institute for Climate Change, who told Carbon Brief that it was “heartbreaking” to see the events in Sikkim unfold. He added:

“Our research did not predict when this is going to happen, but it assessed the potential damage it could have downstream. The science we produce is often restricted to a scientific community, but it has to go to the common people and policymakers.”

Policymakers knew for more than a decade that the area was vulnerable to a GLOF event, according to a report in the Hindustan Times. Since 2006, activists and communities have pointed out that environment impact assessments for the Teesta III dam did not factor in the risk of earthquakes or GLOFs, reported – but authorities did not take action or address blindspots

Draining glacial lakes before they burst has been attempted in the past, but, according to Sattar, “getting equipment to higher elevations is very, very challenging” and focusing on non-structural measures is also important, such as early warning systems, awareness and resilience-building. 

Experts and activists have called for an urgent overhaul of India’s dam safety mechanism. 

“We have the data, we have an understanding of the change in the cryosphere, so you can start at 8am tomorrow and do proper risk assessments for each and every valley,” said Steiner. He added that there is a need for central funding for early warning systems, but that this has to be “done together with the people who are supposed to be warned”.

On the question of whether this GLOF was linked to human-caused climate change, he added:

“I don’t need an attribution study to tell you that this glacial lake is linked to a changing climate because it would not have formed if you didn’t have climate change.”

He added that, with continued global emissions, there will be a limit to the degree that Himalayan communities can adapt:

“We don’t have the money or the capacity to keep putting in these early warning systems, while we keep putting more CO2 in the atmosphere. We have to change something at the source. There are many culprits in this murder.”

‘CRUCIAL DECADE’: What does COP28 – its global stocktake, fights over loss and damage funding and 1.5C – mean for developing countries in an “overshoot” world and how should India chart its path in a changing energy, geopolitical and legal landscape? Carbon Brief moderated a discussion with the Centre for Policy Research’s Prof Navroz Dubash, Dr Lavanya Rajamani, Dr Radhika Khosla and Shibani Ghosh.

ARCTIC MONITORS: Scientific American talked to Inuvialuit climate monitors who are recording how climate change is causing their town north of the Arctic Circle in Canada to erode away.

SEEDS OF WAR: Wild Relatives, a film streaming on TrueStory, traced the journey of seeds from the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard to Lebanon, in an attempt to recreate a gene bank destroyed by the outbreak of war.

DeBriefed is written in rotation by Carbon Brief’s team and edited by Daisy Dunne. Please send any tips or feedback to [email protected]

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