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Climate emergency Retreating Swiss glacier spurred May’s new 2050 climate goal

Theresa May and husband hiking in the Swiss Alps

Theresa May and her husband hiking in the Swiss Alps in 2016


Acting British Prime Minister Theresa May said her surprise at the rapid retreat of a glacier she knew from years of walking holidays in the Swiss Alps had strengthened her resolve to commit Britain to a new target of net zero carbon by 2050. 

With impacts from rising temperatures manifesting faster than most models had predicted, scientists see the shrinking of Alpine glaciers as another warning sign that Earth’s climate is lurching towards dangerous tipping points. 

“My husband and I enjoy walking in the Swiss Alps on our holidays. There is a particular place we go to,” May told the Outrage and Optimismexternal link podcast hosted by former top UN climate negotiator Christiana Figueres. 

“And over the last decade, more than a decade probably, at a particular spot, we have seen the glacier retreating at a pace you would not normally expect glaciers to move,” May said in the podcast, recorded on Tuesday. 

+ A before-and-after gallery of vanishing Swiss glaciers

Where exactly May goes hiking in Switzerland remains secret. Tabloid Blick had previously tried to work it outexternal link from an official photo, but said it was a “forest that could be anywhere. No buildings or mountains that would give a hint as to where the photo was taken. Just larches and Swiss stone pines”. 

Climate strikes 

While scientists say the climate crisis is exacerbating natural disasters from floods to wildfires, slower-paced but increasingly visible changes to natural landscapes are also unsettling growing numbers of people. 

Last summer’s northern hemisphere heat-wave was among the factors that motivated people to join civil disobedience movement Extinction Rebellion, which forced Britain’s parliament to declare a symbolic “climate emergency” in May. 

Switzerland is one of the best-performing nations in the fight against global warming, according to an international ranking. However, at home the small Alpine nation receives heavy criticism for its climate policy. In April, tens of thousands of protesters took part in youth-led climate strikes

Britain became the first G7 nation to enshrine the target of net zero carbon by 2050external link into law last week – a move in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions. 

Although the British government’s decisions to support fracking, cut subsidies for solar power and back a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport have raised questions about its commitment to a low-carbon economy, May said she hoped other countries would adopt a similar target. 

Theresa May resigned on June 7 but will remain in Downing Street until a new leader of the Conservative Party is announced on July 22.


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