For decades scientists have announced alarming predictions about the future state of the planet. In the seventies, it was speculated that by the turn of the century we would be plunged into an ice age that would ravage the earth and cause World War III. By the nineties, academia told us that in fact, it would be extreme heat, expected to wipe entire nations off the map (not strictly untrue), obliterate the rainforests by 2000, and melt the Himalayan glaciers by 2010. But from the blistering heat this summer, it seems that the scientific forecasts of recent years may have been too lenient.
Unprecedented levels of heat, wildfires, and drought have scorched vast provinces of the planet, from California to Arctic Sweden, down to Greece and across to Japan over the last few months. The lush landscapes of Europe have been baked to arid fields, while city residents in Asia have been faced with a rising death toll in the record-breaking heat. No longer a distant threat for our grandchildren, as of now, the devastating effects of climate change have arrived, and they’re here to stay.
But isn’t this just the weather? Summer is hot, and a few tropical days don’t prove global warming any more than some cold ones disprove it. But the ramping up of temperatures year after year parallel with greenhouse gas emissions tell a story that, while some may choose to argue on the semantics of, point to a clear trend that defines climate from weather. 2018 is on track to be the fourth hottest year on record, beat only by the other three chart-topping years; 2015, 2016 and 2017. Individually, extreme conditions are just a single data point but taken together over these more tumultuous consecutive years, the extremely high temperatures and conditions create a dot-to-dot that reveals climate change.
To truly differentiate weather from climate, think of the climate as a bucket and the weather as little blue and red balls inside it. If we draw a blue ball, the weather will be moderate, if we pull a red ball, the weather will be extreme. As the temperature rises along with greenhouse gases, more and more blue balls are being replaced by red, making it far more likely that we will draw a more extreme weather condition. Before global warming, the likelihood of fishing out a red ball made extreme weather events a once in a thousand years possibility, but over the last decade, we have seen such 1000-year events repeatedly every year, creating a pattern that is emblematic of a shift in climate rather than coincidental weather conditions.
A new analysis from the World Weather Attribution Project, part of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute has found that Europe’s heat wave was at least twice as likely to happen because of human-induced global warming, demonstrating an ‘unambiguous’ link between climate change and today’s weather conditions. The continent has been baking under a massive high-pressure ridge pushing heat up to the Arctic and preventing cooler rainfall from giving the area any relief. Such a ridge had been sitting above California until this year, dubbed academically by scientists as the ‘Ridiculously Resilient Ridge’ stretching a one-off drought into a six-year mega-drought that plunged the area into chaos.
This is the beginning of the undeniable effects of climate change which is putting us firmly on track for coastal cities disappearing from the map, agricultural land left scorched and barren, and vast swathes of the Earth left utterly uninhabitable. Effects of which are the future of “Hothouse Earth” — the insulated greenhouse that the appropriately called gases have created. On such a planet, we will have passed the tipping point beyond which its own natural processes to correct uninhabitable conditions are ‘turned off’ by human tampering. Forests, oceans and permafrost that do us a much-needed service by storing carbon that are rapidly becoming overwhelmed and removed from the environment will potentially fall like a row of dominoes. Losing these defences will put global warming beyond our control, no matter how many policies we try and ratify after the fact. Under these predictions, even the 2°C limit hoped for by the Paris Agreement could still be too much for the planet to hold out against. In such a damaged future, it will be unlikely that nature or even the contemporary human civilisation will be able to unbridle itself from the mess created. Leaving us with a population that cannot support itself, with lacking water and food resources hiked up in price, and an ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots.
You would hope that under such overwhelming data, science, and evidence literally at our front door that policymakers will be compelled into action to prevent the looming environmental, social and economic ruin. But international governing bodies and policies around climate change are stagnant, and there is disconcerting evidence that we may be in a worse position than ever before. After a three year stall in global greenhouse gas emissions, this year they have risen, despite climate understanding rising too. Levels of carbon in the atmosphere are highest since the last 800’000 years, at over 412 parts per million. And despite movements towards divestment from fossil fuels, the industry has seen its first rise in share price since 2014. The heartwarming movement symbolised by the Paris Agreements has been diluted to a weak sliver of hope, with the last three hottest years occurring since the signing, the actual limits and policies slow to fruition and only incremental action has been seen, rather than required radical change. Soon to be lacking one of the worlds biggest polluters, the Paris agreement is in jeopardy of sorely missing it’s 2°C warming above pre-industrial level limit. And with the Hothouse Earth threatening even that level of temperature rise, it seems highly unlikely that the planet can be safely ‘parked’ at the boundary. Our laissez-faire approach to the earth has been so heedless that our options for the future are slim, leaving us with the choice between bad and catastrophic.
There are swathes of denial, postulating and professing that climate predictions are vague and unquantifiable, saying that perhaps global warming isn’t all out fault, that volcanoes and cow farts play a prominent role, and that it’s too economically stupid to leave hefty financial assets in the ground when there’s so much money to be made on them. But with runaway warming on the horizon, already threatening us with mass extinction, drought, heat and land loss, does it matter what the cause is, and is it something that we should leave to the roll of a dice?