Following the IPCC’s recent report, Sci&Tech Editor Will Nunn explores the reality of climate change and what the future has in store
We have 12 years left.
This is the claim of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which released a report earlier this month stating that humanity must significantly reduce its impact on the planet within that timeframe to minimise the dangerous effects of global warming.
“Minimise” is the key word here. There is not a great deal of good news regarding climate change and this report puts things in clear perspective. According to NASA the Earth’s current global temperature stands at around 0.9℃, following a decade of the highest temperatures since records began in the 1800s. This puts the world at almost a full degree warmer than pre-industrial levels, while heating up at a rate which has not been seen for a millennia.
It is essentially common knowledge by this point that humans are the root of the problem. We emit thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually so levels are constantly growing. As levels of this gas increases, the “greenhouse effect”, by which solar radiation is trapped within the atmosphere, grows ever more severe. Though some figures from recent years depict a slow in the growth of emissions, the nominal quantities of emissions are still very high. Humans still burn huge amounts of fossil fuels, continue the destruction of habitats like the Amazon rainforest which are crucial for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and operate deeply inefficient industries such as meat farming.
In their report, the IPCC pushes for unprecedented expense and effort to limit further warming to a 1.5℃ limit. Their suggestion is not a preventative measure: this is damage control. The past year alone has given us a flavour of what’s to come. One has only to point to Hurricane Florence in the USA, forest fires across North America, flooding in Asia and droughts across the world to gain an understanding of where the situation is headed. As warming continues these types of disasters will only intensify; the storms will be stronger and the droughts more severe.
With around 40% of the world’s population living within 100km of the coast, the threat of sea level rise due to polar ice melting is colossal. Long term we are already guaranteed at least a metre of sea level rise (best case scenario), which could be still catastrophic for countries like Bangladesh where vast quantities of farmland could be flooded. Climate refugees are going to become a reality one day.
The Paris Agreement, signed by 195 UN member states, set out global aims to maintain the average global temperature to between 1.5 and 2℃. In urging a reduction in warming to a 1.5℃ limit, the IPCC is hoping for a best case scenario from the agreement’s already ambitious target range.
To achieve this goal the nations of the world need to cut their emissions down by at least 40-70% by 2050, and then drop to near zero by the end of the century. Achieving this aim requires a huge shift in global infrastructure away from dependence on fossil fuels and towards renewable sources with lower emissions, and this comes with a huge price tag. The world does not have the infrastructure in place to meet its energy needs in this way, so these resources would need to be built. A separate IPCC report from 2014 estimated that it would require $13 trillion in investment through 2030 in order to stabilise greenhouse emissions, but the longer we hesitate before taking serious action the higher this figure rises. Matters are complicated by predictions that reducing dependence on fossil fuels will reduce the rate of economic growth, through rising energy prices among other factors. Long term, however, the benefits of taking action now are immense, dramatically reducing the extent of a host of problems stretching out into the future
A spanner was thrown into the works of the Paris Agreement in 2017 when President Donald Trump announced he would be pulling the USA out of the accords. As a significant contributor to the world’s emissions, and therefore bearing a sizeable chunk of the burden of reduction set out in the agreements, losing America was considerable blow. The USA is set to officially leave the agreement in November 2020.
President Trump has a history of climate change denial, and his administration’s approach to key issues like sustainability and fossil fuels comes at a deeply unfortunate and sensitive point in history. His administration displays textbook traits of climate denial and scepticism, typically on rocky scientific grounds.
In his 2012 book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, climatologist and geophysicist Michael E. Mann details his “six stages of denial”. Beginning at denial of any carbon dioxide increase and moving through phases of denying man’s impact, to denying the scale of the threat, to justifying the consequences as beneficial, to admitting it’s too late, Mann’s stages have been on display in full force over recent years. Many notable examples can be seen within the Republican Party over the weeks since the IPCC report.
In 2012 Trump tweeted “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S manufacturing non-competitive”, this is classic stage 1 denial: claiming carbon dioxide is not actually increasing.
On the 15th of October, Trump gave an interview with 60 Minutes in which he was pressed on his views on climate change in the wake of the series of large scale storms and hurricanes America has been hit by this year. “I don’t think it’s a hoax,” he explained, “but I don’t know that it’s manmade”. This is another stage: accepting there is warming but disputing a human cause.
Trump went on to claim that climate scientists have a “very big political agenda”, arguing that there are other scientists who would side with him. A typical study places the number of scientists who believe in man-made climate change at around 97%, so siding with the 3% is not an equivalent position. Attempting to undermine consensus and objective evidence in this way requires its own deeply blinding political motivation.
Trump’s insistence that we cannot be sure of the real cause of climate change, as well as a consistent implication that things may change back on themselves, becomes more deeply concerning when you consider his environmental policy. There have so far been two administrators of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under his presidency, both with strong links the fossil fuel industry. He has been fixated on rolling back Obama-era environmental regulations, opening up increased consumption of fossil fuels and reducing protection from pollution and exploitation.
Serious steps to make the necessary change to our world are only feasible if backed by motivated political action. Trump’s administration, though more destructive in its efforts, is not unique in its lax approach to solving this problem. Most governments are simply not pushing hard enough. This is the type of issue which exists on a timescale far outside of the typical four or five year term of most political parties, which makes it a tough issue for them to approach effectively. Sinking funds into the projects required will likely not yield significant positive results until long after the next election, so parties shy away from making the necessary sacrifices in favour of more immediate vote winning policies. Developing nations provide another hurdle, since it is ethically difficult for Europe or America to turn to emerging powers like China and India and demand they avoid using the very same resources to achieve their own economic maturity.
If we fail to limit warming to 2℃ the long term consequences are deeply troubling. Each rise of a fraction of a degree contributions to an increased committed sea level rise; putting the homes of millions and large amounts of vital farmland at risk. Supplies of clean drinking water could one day be under threat, and crop yields to feed a growing global population will fall.
The world needs serious action right now. The IPCC’s 12 year deadline has caused a more significant media stir than similar reports and warnings in the past, so with some luck the push we need might come soon. Human beings excel at innovation and overcoming unlikely odds, so I take some comfort that we simply cannot know what bright ideas or fixes lie around the corner. As it stands we have made some good steps, but significant leaps are still needed to achieve the change we need.