When global warming first began to be elucidated by climate scientists, the first trickles into public consciousness was embodied by stranded polar bears and displaced orangutans. But in the years since concern for a warmer world began to move out of the arena of concerned environmentalists and into popular culture, we have witnessed not only the devastating environmental impacts but also the human cost. Heatwaves have increased mortality rates and increased the risk of disease. Extreme weather events have halted development and cut down populations. And air pollution is shaving years off life expectancies.
Our instinct for self-preservation has subjected the sad stories of displaced animals to the realm of apathy with little action, which explains how we got into this mess in the first place. But now the climate breakdown is threatening our own safety in what will manifest into a global catastrophe, concern for what the future holds is rapidly turning into a real-time threat. The globe’s temperature has already warmed 1-degree Celcius since the 19th Century and continues to rise. Now, a major new report has looked at the consequences of the mercury reaching 1.5 or 2 degrees Celcius, above which the challenges are even more dire.
Most people have been of the general conviction that international cooperatives and governments are working behind the scenes to prevent the worst consequences of a warmer world. The Paris Climate Agreement, signed by nearly 200 countries in 2015, is seen as the watershed moment for global warming, from which point the world will begin to pivot away from the looming threat. The protocol was rigorous, the meetings lengthy, but the goals set were the essential benchmarks to prevent the disaster proposed by the threat of global warming. The ambition: Prevent the global temperature from reaching higher than 1.5 degrees Celcius above the readings from the middle of the 1800’s. The contingency: We really should stop at 2°C warmer, above which the planet its civilisations are irrefutably hijacked by runaway climate change.
But the current trajectory of the planet is starting to put both goals rapidly out of reach. Concern for a prophesied drop in economic growth – which has long been propped up by fossil fuels – has prevented mitigation measures from being implemented within a timeframe that will actually keep the world from burning. The combination of pledges made in Paris and three years since, from lofty greenwash about banning diesel sometime between 2030 and 2050 to a heavy-handed approach to plastic, actually puts the planet on track for at least a 3.4°C rise by the turn of the century. These piece-meal climate mitigation offerings in addition to the reckless expansion of airports, unyielding deforestation, and America’s inane support for the coal industry which was being put to bed long before concerns about polar bears came to light, are not putting us in good stead to reach reasonable temperature targets and stay there. So now, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have weighed in on the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C and the imperative to go no further. The report, commissioned at the Paris climate talks in 2016, set out to provide policymakers clarity on the difference a few degrees makes.
The assessment is particularly poignant now since most governments have been working to the vague goal of 2°C, which, since the 2015 agreement, has become the unofficial waymarker of climate change. But in unambiguous clarity, the data in the report, compiled from over 6000 scientific studies, assessed by more than 80 of the worlds top climate scientists from nearly 40 countries and accounting for 40’000 peer-reviewed comments, makes it unequivocally clear that 1.5°C is the absolute limit to preserve the stability of the worlds ecological and societal systems.
The scientists warn that without rapid and international efforts, in as little as a dozen years the world will reach the 1.5°C frontier, pitting the planet, it’s ecosystems, and human civilisations into a dangerously malign territory. The stark reality check is bolstered in the report with reminders of the effects we’re already seeing, from record-breaking temperatures across the world this summer, devastating storms across the US and the South East coast of Asia, and wide-spread droughts in South Africa and California. And now every seemingly incremental fraction of a degree will worsen the impact of such events.
With grim conviction, the report assures us that the planet is headed for a relentless turbulence as the global temperature rise surges disproportionately around the world. The earth will be hit with a crescendo of events and have to adapt all at once, with areas that are already unstable being taken to the breaking point. But if the planet continues on its trajectory, in under two decades we will surpass the lowest possible goal and hurtle towards the untenable global temperatures of 2°C. We are already locked into 1.5°C warming, which will wreak brutal consequences on the planet particularly those not lucky enough to live in OPEC countries who will be exposed to rampant food and water scarcity. But as the report makes clear, half a degree further rise will threaten several hundred million more by 2050 and put the planet’s ecosystems into spiralling danger. By the end of the century 10 million more people will be placed in jeopardy from sea levels 10cm higher than a 1.5°C future. At least a third of the world’s population will be exposed to extreme heatwaves at least once every five years in comparison with 14% at 1.5°C. 60 million more people will experience water scarcity in the half-degree warmer future. Coral reefs around the world will be all but wiped out, and ecosystems and agriculture will be devastated as twice as many insects and pollinators lose their habitats in comparison to 1.5°C warming. Arctic ice will be all but nonexistent in the summers, melting away vital habitats for arctic wildlife – confirming the warning from decades ago about the polar bears.
If such consequences weren’t severe enough, the report also touches on ‘tipping points’; the natural feedback loops that furnish ecosystems with the capacity for survival that will be essentially turned off. The life or death domino effects are little understood until they reveal themselves, at which point it is too late. It could mean that even if we reach 1.5°C and stay there, it could still take one feedback loop over the edge and in a last cry of vengeance tip the planet over to 2°C. Such scenarios include the melting permafrost in the Arctic, which has stored tonnes of methane as it froze for millennia, which will be released into the atmosphere we so desperately need to keep free of greenhouse gases.
There is nothing vague nor contestable about this data; if we continue on with business as usual right now and into the near future, the planet and human civilisations will be exposed to extreme challenges. Beyond simply saving a few at-risk species, the IPCC’s report has clarified to the public and most importantly governments that climate change not only a massive threat to the worlds sensitive ecosystems, but also to human rights and the economy.
Human civilisation is already undergoing a monumental shift in energy production, lifestyle choices and attitudes. Since the Paris agreement was signed in 2015, the international push for renewable energy has deflated the cost of solar and wind technologies to a point where it is beginning to up-end the centuries-long dominance of coal, oil, and gas. Alternatives in other industries are seeing electrification soar through the adoption curve and are expected to power the majority of vehicles by 2040. However, the report demands in no uncertain terms that to meet the lower end of climate-induced chaos, carbon pollution must be cut by nearly a half by 2030 and be zero by 2050. To do so, the cost of carbon taxes must be three to four times higher than those for a 2°C target. The report calls for the swift decommissioning of coal power plants, reforestation in damaged rural areas, further electrification, and greater adoption of carbon capture technology. The investment required for these shifts is far from unattainable: less than $1 trillion over the next 30 years, which will return $25 trillion in economic benefits by 2030. The analysis, data and advice from the worlds leading scientists verify that it is technically and economically feasible to halt global warming at 1.5°C. But is the world prepared politically to do so?
The report confirms a stark reality a significant minority of governments are not prepared to accept. In addition to the warming extremes, the planet is also under the scourge of climate deniers, apathists and hostiles. The United States – the worlds second largest producer of greenhouse gases – is already set to be out of the Paris Agreement by 2020. Jair Bolsonaro, far-right politician in the front-running of Brazil’s presidential election has already made his position clear, promising to follow suit and pull out of the agreement, and is determined to open the Amazon rainforest even further to farming and mining in the delicate ecosystem. And just before the release of the IPCC’s report, Australia’s new prime minister Scott Morrison stated on radio that to his mind there is no money for “global climate conferences and all that nonsense”, following the release of worryingly high results of the country’s emissions on a suspiciously overlooked day: a Friday night before a massive football game. The narcissism of these global leaders is being supported and lobbied by vast swathes of fossil fuel companies and the agribusiness who are determined to eek out the last drops of climate homicide while these destructive activities are still permitted.
Such decisions by these countries and companies mean the countries who agree with the findings will have to double down on their efforts. The report will be presented to most of the countries at the end of the year at the UN conference in Poland and will show in stark clarity just how much needs to be done in a short amount of time. But the response from the likes of Europe has been decidedly reserved, and the actions of even those in support of the scientists demonstrate the international will to put economic growth ahead of global safety. Britain’s lofty promises to renewable investment are dampened by their renewed commitment to fracking. Germany’s innovation into the worlds first hydrogen trains is undone by their ambition to dig for coal in the Hambach forest. And Norway’s commencement of oil exploration in the Arctic flies in the face of their stellar performance in hydropower.
Such countries will probably take on board much of what the report predicts, but time is running out for lengthy deliberation and far-off timescales while climate-damaging activities continue to get express consent. The ruling bodies of the human societies, governments and companies included, must take heed of this stark warning and swiftly create policies and adapt their countries to navigate the planet toward a safer future, particularly as the world starts to see the visible and visceral effects of climate change. The way in which our societies are built for life and work must be upgraded to accommodate all facets of the planet rather than just our own by investing and innovating in new technologies and designs. We must commit to allowing natural spaces to thrive rather than just being seen as our own personal resource so they can protect species and absorb the manifestly dangerous carbon dioxide. And we must accept the reality, much to the rejection of many environmental campaigners, that carbon storage and removal technologies must be applied, even if they seem to fly in the face of the necessary adaptation, because we really are running out of time and options. Our societies must adapt to work in tandem with the planet they reside on, otherwise, in the future, they won’t.