Hammered by daunting climate change related headlines
Recent news headlines in Australia and beyond are daunting. While northern Queensland has been battling with a “once-in-a-century flooding”, Tasmania is facing a “historic event”, an “unprecedented” “fire crisis”. Meanwhile the recent Australian droughts may have been the worst in 800 years. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) announced that January 2019 was Australia’s hottest month since records began and that climate change “contributed to soaring temperatures”, which followed an already “record-breaking December”. Heatwaves don’t solely make us feel more sick, agitated or lethargic. They kill en masse. “Over two days in November, record-breaking heat in Australia’s north wiped out almost one-third of the nation’s spectacled flying foxes”. And everyone remembers that last month, “up to a million fish have died along a 40-kilometer stretch of the Darling River in far west New South Wales”, in the case of which the recent droughts may have exacerbated the situation. According to a senior BOM climatologist, “there’s been so many records it’s really hard to count”. This records-beating trend seems unlikely to go away as the BOM and CSIRO explain that, during the coming years and decades, “every part of Australia will continue to experience increases in average temperature, and will have a higher frequency of hot days”.
This is all very daunting – and not limited to Australia. The World Economic Forum (the Davos people, hardly greenies) identified that the failure of not adapting to and mitigating against climate change is yet again in the top five global risks by likelihood and impact in 2019 (alongside global weather events, natural disasters and cyber-attacks). End of January, Chicago was colder than Antarctica. Northern America has just experienced another ‘polar vortex’, an extreme cold due to strong icy winds to which “many [scientists] identify climate change as an influence”. Only three months ago, California was experiencing its “most destructive” bushfire, burning practically the whole town of (the ill-named) Paradise down (26 thousand inhabitants!). In Europe, climate change is affecting every country, causing a wide range of impacts on society and the environment, from the increase of flood risk to “unprecedented” bushfires, making 2018 “the most deadly wildfire season in Europe since 1900”.
On another note, scientists warned in October 2017 of an “ecological Armageddon” as Earth’s sixth mass extinction event is said to be currently underway. 60% of the wildlife has gone extinct in the last 50 years. Let this sink in. While climate change is not the sole reason for wildlife extinction, it is nonetheless said to cause “a major wipeout of insects”. No insects means no frogs, no birds, no mammals, all the way up the food chain, as well as no pollination of many of the foods that we enjoy eating.
The list of daunting headlines goes on and on. Climate change isn’t and cannot be blamed for every natural disaster and ecological catastrophe, yet climate scientists are increasingly good at being able to demonstrate that disasters are indeed made worse, and/or more frequent, due to climate change.
Which future do we want?
The Fifth Assessment Report of the Peace Nobel winning prize United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made clear that an increase of the global temperature – leading to climate change – due to human greenhouse gas emissions is indeed happening and that human activity is “extremely likely” to be the cause of it. The report offers four scenarios, from best to worse, as to the possible pathways lying ahead of us. If governments around the world don’t take enough action to reduce the temperature increase, we are expected to reach “4.1 °C to 4.8 °C above pre-industrial by the end of the century”.
According to official views, it is still possible to achieve the best scenario, if we limit the global temperature increase to less than 2°C, and preferably 1.5°C, as agreed by the international community in the 2015 Paris Agreement. But as of today, we are on a pathway to reaching a 3.0°C to 4°C by 2100. It seems like nothing, but keep in mind that the disasters mentioned above are happening even though the global temperature has only increased of 0.8°C since 1880, and “two-thirds of the warming has occurred since 1975”. If you struggle to make sense of what each additional degree means for you, this post provides in simple terms a degree by degree explanation of what will happen when the earth warms. Beware, it’s the stuff of nightmare. In all cases, just remember that you don’t want to live on a planet where the global temperature has increased more than 1.5°C in average. Life would be just too hard. But for this to happen, drastic social, economic, and political changes ought to be made, before 2020.
Unofficially, and anecdotally, it appears that climate scientists, who are working on the frontline of climate change, are unconvinced that such changes will be made on time. They are also worried about the possible tipping points such as the melting of the arctic glacier and subsequent release of methane gas that would bring the global temperature to the roof, and seem to have grave concerns about the direction our planet is heading towards. Many argue that the IPCC’s reports are actually under-estimating the risks and in a 2016 survey, a large majority of the climate scientists surveyed believed that “climate change poses a very serious and dangerous threat to humanity”.
If such concerns are proven right, then it is entirely possible that dire changes lie ahead of us. These include massive species extinction, frequent occurrence of natural disasters of high intensity, spread of diseases, leading to increased mortality, mass migration, conflicts and economic decline. In our lifetime.
The end of the world?
Claiming that the end of the world is nigh, is nothing new. A list of predicted apocalyptic events can be found on Wikipedia, and, of course, none happened. Additionally, it would be absurd to claim that “the end of the world has started” considering that even if 97% of all life was wiped out by climate change like what happened 250 million years ago, life would continue. Without humans perhaps, but the world would not have ended.
Some, however, argue that the world as we know it, is ending. A world in which we have strived thanks to cheap fossil fuel energy; in which we can make stable weather predictions to grow crops; in which we find it normal to travel around the globe for a long weekend; in which we eat imported out-of-season fruits all year round; in which living on the seashore is a blessing, not a curse; in which people don’t contract malaria and other tropical diseases in Europe; in which wars around access to drinkable water are limited to a few hotspots; in which we don’t fear that societal collapse could happen at any moment.
‘Collapse’ is not a new concept. Jared Diamond made it famous in his 2005 book in which he argued that humanity today faces similar risks of “drastic decrease in population size” compared to previous civilisations that have collapsed. A former French Environment Minister, has even put a calendar to societal collapse. He claims that the 2020-2050 period will be the most devastating that humanity has ever experienced in such a short time and argues that it will consist of three successive stages: the end of the world as we know it (2020-2030), the survival interval (2030-2040), the beginning of a rebirth (2040-2050). Similarly, some scientists, arguing that since “disruptive impacts from climate change are now inevitable”, our current efforts to “adapt” and “mitigate” the effects of climate change are ineffective and call instead for a “deep adaptation agenda”. An adaptation at turbo speed. This agenda is based on the premise that “recent research suggests that human societies will experience disruptions to their basic functioning within less than ten years due to climate stress. Such disruptions include increased levels of malnutrition, starvation, disease, civil conflict and war – and will not avoid affluent nations”. A sense of urgency is palpable across some sectors.
The story of climate change is yet to be written
As a former international humanitarian aid worker, and as a current firefighter, I have been exposed to a number of man-made and natural disasters. While imagining a world engulfed in disasters is difficult, especially from the comfort of an armchair, I know from experience that disasters do in fact happen. This said, I am by no means a ‘catastrophist’, and I do not claim that we are facing impending doom. I am a father of two young boys, and I deeply wish them to grow in a world free of cataclysmic events. Also, I know that when it comes to climate change, scaring readers can be counter-productive and may disempower them instead of the opposite. I am also aware of different cognitive biases that we, as humans, are constantly victims of. One of them, known as confirmation bias, “is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses”. As such, it is easy for anyone to find sensationalist headlines online and build a frightening story. The beauty of science lies in its intellectual rigor and shared understandings. While all of the headlines listed above are frightening, they do not make a solid scientific narrative on their own.
I’ve had the privilege to witness the most beautiful acts of human compassion in the most dire circumstances. I know that humans have the most extraordinary ability to bounce back from terrible situations. While President Trump might have found wise to withdraw the US from the 2015 Paris climate Agreement, it is clear that many are ignoring him. National governments, regional governments, local governments, not-for profits, global corporations and local companies, education providers, and most importantly citizens all over the world, from Greta Thunberg to Extinction Rebellion, are actively engaged in ensuring that the worst scenario do not happen. There have been great progress in raising awareness and responding to the challenges of environmental pollution, biodiversity loss and climate change.
Yet, the effects of climate change are locked in. There are enough greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to make sure that the situation gets worse before it gets better. So, has the end of the world (as we know it) started? Are we sleepwalking into devastation of unimaginable proportions?
Climate scientists, we need more of your knowledge
It is difficult for a non-climate scientist to make sense of it all so, as part of my academic research work, I am looking into the personal adaptation and mitigation strategies of those who are on the frontline of climate change, i.e. climate scientists and ‘climate change key informants’ (individuals who are not climate scientists but have engaged professionally in depth with the topic of climate change). In particular, my research asks what measures they personally implement or will be implementing to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change on their own lives and on the lives of their (grand-)children.
Ultimately, based on informed practices from climate scientists, my research aims to provide people like you and me with a better understanding of how and when climate change may affect us and our descendants, and what we can personally do about it. The findings will be published here and in peer-reviewed academic journals.
I hope they prove the doomsayers wrong, but I don’t know if they will.