As you probably already know, the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate calls for a limitation of a 2°C increase above pre-industrial levels of the average global temperature – and preferably 1.5°C – recognizing that “this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.” According to the latest report from the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we will be reaching the 1.5°C threshold increase around 2030 if we continue to live ‘business-as-usual’. To avoid this, we have around 11 years to – drastically – change the course of climate change.
While the IPCC recalls that “[c]limate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth are projected to increase with global warming of 1.5°C”, it also warns that all of these would be made even worse if we reach a 2°C rise. For instance, limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to 2°C “may reduce the proportion of the world population exposed to a climate change-induced increase in water stress by up to 50%”; it may also “result in smaller net reductions in yields of maize, rice, wheat, and potentially other cereal crops”. The World Bank estimated in 2014 that a 1.5°C increase is already “locked in”, i.e. unavoidable, and that reaching the 2°C threshold is expected within 20 to 30 years. In order words, not reaching 1.5°C or even 2°C seems impossible.
According to the often-quoted globalwarming.berrens.nl website, at 2°C, “the hot European summer of 2003 will be the annual norm. Anything that could be called a heatwave thereafter will be of Saharan intensity. Even in average years, people will die of heat stress.” “In the two-degree world, nobody will think of taking Mediterranean holidays.” Further, “not only coastal communities will suffer. As mountains lose their glaciers, so people will lose their water supplies. The entire Indian subcontinent will be fighting for survival. As the glaciers disappear from all but the highest peaks, their runoff will cease to power the massive rivers that deliver vital freshwater to hundreds of millions.” The source adds that at 2°C, “everywhere, ecosystems will unravel as species either migrate or fall out of synch with each other. By the time global temperatures reach two degrees of warming in 2050, more than a third of all living species will face extinction.” (Note that while providing a visually striking narrative to imagine what climate change may look like, this website offers no indication about who is behind it, so it must be taken with caution).
As of today, the official estimates are that if we don’t radically change the way our societies are organised, we are heading towards a 3°C to 4°C increase of the average global temperature by 2100. By then, my children will be in their mid-eighties. They will be living in a world which will be, according to the World Bank, one of “unprecedented heat waves, severe drought, and major floods in many regions, with serious impacts on human systems, ecosystems, and associated services.”
Although no one can predict the future, we can imagine the following happening during the coming decades. Due to unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics, people would be seeking to move to better climate. Most of Africa, of South-east Asia and of Central and South America would become uninhabitable. This means that billions of people living in between the tropic of Cancer and the tropic of Capricorn would seek to move to Northern America, Northern Europe, Russia, the southern tip of South America and to New-Zealand. Walls to stop them would undoubtedly be built, but they may not be enough. Of course, this is an over-simplification, but I hope it makes the point.
In addition, population movement will also happen within countries, including within the regions just listed above. As many dry regions become dryer, and wet regions wetter; as drinkable water becomes more scarce; as cyclones become more intense, and as sea level rises inexorably, billions of inhabitants living on coastal cities and regions will have to relocate to avoid permanent or recurrent floods, and millions will relocate to avoid droughts. Given that the southern half of the United States would become inhospitably dry, one may hypothesise that the US has plans to invade Canada. Perhaps China will decide to forcibly relocate its population in Russia.
Also, according to a 2018 study by the University of East Anglia (UK), the James Cook University (Australia), and WWF , “[u]p to half of plant and animal species in the world’s most naturally rich areas, such as the Amazon, the Arctic and the Galapagos – and in Europe, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea Basin – could face local extinction by the turn of the century due to climate change if carbon emissions continue to rise unchecked. Even if the Paris Climate Agreement 2°C target is met, these places could lose 25 per cent of their species.” This irreversible loss of biodiversity, coupled with failing crop due to increase temperature, would likely lead to massive starvation and malnutrition.
Unfortunately, it is not all. The scenario described above are based on a linear deterioration of the situation, which means that the worsening would be gradual, if rapid. But there are also ‘known unknowns’ which, should they occur, would lead to a sudden and extremely rapid increase in the global temperature. According to a scenario analysis by eminent climate change scientist and experts published last year, “a potential planetary threshold could occur at a temperature rise as low as ∼2°C above preindustrial”. This means that, if we do reach the 2°C threshold, we could then be on path for a ‘runaway climate change’, where “self-reinforcing feedbacks could push the Earth System toward a planetary threshold that, if crossed, could prevent stabilization of the climate at intermediate temperature rises and cause continued warming on a “Hothouse Earth” pathway even as human emissions are reduced.” In other words, game over. This however, is a “perspective piece”, an “essay based on knowledge of the scientific literature, rather than new modelling or data analysis” explains Richard Betts, Met Office Fellow and Professor of Climate Impacts. Similarly, the science journalist Michael Marshall states that “[the authors] do not have hard evidence, so for now the possibility is theoretical”, but adds, “it [nonetheless] cannot be dismissed out of hand.”
Indeed, some are preparing for the worst. Extinction Rebellion was established in the United Kingdom in October 2018 with about one hundred academics signing a call to action with the ultimate aim to prevent human extinction. In parallel, Professor Jem Bendell called for a ‘Deep Adaptation’ agenda, which resonates with the more traditional field of climate adaptation but “takes as its starting point the inevitability of societal collapse”. He, alongside other prominent figures, argues that societal collapse will happen sometime in the next ten years.
We don’t know if reaching the 2°C average is a threshold to “hothouse Earth”, but we do know that there are (many) possible tipping points and feedback loops, such as the thawing of the permafrost in Russia, or the dieback of the boreal forests, which amplify global warming as stored carbon and methane are released into the atmosphere. As Bendell puts it, “[t]he observed phenomena, of actual temperatures and sea levels, are greater than what the climate models over the past decades were predicting for our current time. They are consistent with non-linear changes in our environment that then trigger uncontrollable impacts on human habitat and agriculture, with subsequent complex impacts on social, economic and political systems.”
This is one possible future. A bleak, hopeless future. But a possible future nonetheless.
Another future remains possible
It is not the only possible future though. Numerous studies show that there are technically and economically feasible emissions pathways that can limit the warming to 2°C. Even under 1.5°C. A January 2019 research by scientists at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), the German Aerospace Center and the University of Melbourne, has found that “[w]ith a transition to 100% renewable energy by mid-century and a major land conservation and restoration effort, it is possible to stay below the 1.5 °C limit with technologies that are available right now.” According to the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which funded most of this research, “[t]here are five major components to the renewable energy transition. First is increased capacity to generate electricity mostly through solar and wind power, enabling the electrification of all energy uses including power, heating, transportation, and even industrial uses. Second is increased storage capacity in the form of battery arrays and pumped hydroelectric (which uses excess generation to pump water up to a reservoir releasing the energy when needed). Third is energy efficiency – decreasing overall energy consumption, especially in the developed world, by making buildings, cities, and vehicles more efficient. Fourth involves repurposing the existing gas pipeline and storage infrastructure to deliver hydrogen produced by renewable sources. Fifth is a gradual retraining of the energy workforce to participate in the burgeoning green economy. The sixth major component of the climate model is land restoration.”
It adds that “Natural Climate Solutions include everything from restoring natural forests, grasslands, and wetlands to improving soil fertility through regenerative agricultural practices like agroforestry, silvopasture, and cover crops. These solutions not only absorb carbon, they also dramatically increase sustainable livelihoods in the developing world, offering improved water supplies, reduced soil erosion, and higher quality crop yields.”
Project Drawdown is a nonprofit organization and coalition of scholars, scientists, entrepreneurs, and advocates from across the globe that is mapping, measuring, modeling, and communicating about a collective array of substantive solutions to global warming, with the goal of reaching drawdown. It has provided, and continuously adds to, an inspiring list of realistic, impactful, already existing, solutions, which are worth knowing and supporting.
The multi-authored ‘hothouse Earth’ scenario analysis mentioned earlier in the post argues that “social and technological trends and decisions occurring over the next decade or two could significantly influence the trajectory of the Earth System for tens to hundreds of thousands of years”.
It seems clear. Our future is not set in stone and a window of opportunity exists, but it is closing rapidly.
How likely are we to avoid a catastrophic future?
This, of course, is the 7+ billion people question. It is obvious that the way our modern societies are organised need to be changed, radically and fast. Our model based on the use of fossil fuels and endless growth is driving us to the wall.
Despite huge resistance, there seems to be a growing awareness of the need to change our system. The School Strike 4 Climate, spearheaded by the charismatic Greta Thunberg, alongside the Extinction Rebellion movement and the proposed Green New Deal in the United States, are only the latest to join the bandwagon, but they highlight a deep, existential, push from the bottom-up to pressure decision-makers at all levels to take the plunge. Similarly, citizens are suing their governments and fossil fuel companies for failing to protect them and endangering them – and are increasingly winning their lawsuits. “In Colombia and the Netherlands, citizens won rulings in 2018 ordering their governments to cut emissions and protect forests.” According to the CDP, formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project, just 100 companies, listed here, are responsible for 71% of global emissions. Yes, you read this correctly. Its 2017 report highlights that “a relatively small set of fossil fuel producers may hold the key to systemic change on carbon emissions.” Clearly, further pressure can be put on financiers to cease investing in these companies.
At other levels, there are on-going discussions for ensuring a better global governance to ensure that the whole of the planet makes the shift towards decarbonized societies. For instance, the Earth System Governance research alliance explores “political solutions and novel, more effective governance mechanisms to cope with the current transitions in the biogeochemical systems of the planet”. All of the world’s countries have agreed on Sustainable Development Goals to be achieved by 2030, and one of these goals involves taking “urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts by regulating emissions and promoting developments in renewable energy.” Funds drawn from public, private and alternative sources of financing are being allocated to support mitigation and adaptation actions that address climate change. Local councils everywhere are declaring climate emergency and have begun to pass motions to dramatically accelerate carbon reduction action. America’s Pledge, consists of a significant group of US states, cities, tribes and businesses that are committed to circumvent their President and take action on climate change. China, is now the “world’s largest producer, exporter and installer of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and electric vehicles”.
Clearly, there is a climate momentum.
Will this be enough?
I don’t know. We may avert human extinction, and we may reduce the catastrophic impacts of climate change on the planet, its inhabitants and its wildlife. It sure is worth the try.
But as dramatic climate changes and weather extremes are already affecting millions of people around the world, it is clear that it is going to get worse before it gets better.
I will explore in the next post (here) what we can do about climate change.