Featured photo by Mike Lewelling, National Park Service
On October 8, 2018, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest climate assessment detailing the progress the world has made in achieving its commitment to the 2016 Paris Agreements, designed to prevent average global temperatures from rising more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The report’s findings were dire. While many nations expected to have decades to cut their carbon emissions to achieve the 1.5°C goal, they were shocked to learn that the world has only twelve years to reverse its behavior before the goal becomes unachievable. If the world continues to emit as much carbon as it does today, by the year 2100, global temperatures will be 5°C above pre-industrial levels. This is a far cry from the 2°C maximum limit set in Paris. The IPCC report went on to declare that the consequences of failing to keep global temperatures below the 1.5°C goal would be catastrophic.
Despite the magnitude of these consequences, the planet’s leading economies are unwilling or unable to cut emissions in time to avoid catastrophe. Despite being one of the biggest contributors to climate change, the United States, at the direction of President Donald Trump has renounced its commitment to the Paris Accords. Similarly, the front-runner in the race for Brazil’s Presidency, Jair Bolsonaro, is running on a platform to reopen the Amazon Rainforest to deforestation, expanded cattle ranching, and farming. This single act could eliminate the world’s most important carbon sink, just when the IPCC is asserting that world needs many more Amazon-scale carbon sinks. It is frightening to see two of the world’s biggest economies double-down on carbon-dioxide emissions, just as the planet teeters towards suffocation from CO2.
The IPCC report warns that if we do not stay below the 1.5°C limit, “several hundred million” lives will be put at risk. New York Magazine calls it a “climate genocide.” Their article details how at 2°C the polar ice caps will have completely melted, leaving many of the world’s major cities underwater. There will be permanent fresh-water shortages, heat-waves will kill thousands, and there will be unprecedented population migration. At 3°C, the world essentially will become unlivable, with global populations facing mass extinction.
Even at 1°C above pre-industrial levels, where global temperatures are today, there are palpable and dangerous consequences to climate change. Recent news headlines have documented these dangers. Among the most tragic were the California wildfires that took place this past summer. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, in 2018 alone, about 1.4 million acres of land in California burned as a result of wildfires– costing billions of pounds in damages. Though California is no stranger to wildfires, in recent years these fires have become more intense and more frequent. As California experiences hotter temperatures, plants— which release water when they exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide during photosynthesis—quickly wither, die and become kindling for future fires. With the land so dry, fires spread uncontrollably for miles before they burn out. In a bit of environmental irony, these burning trees release massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere exacerbating the climate change that brought on the fires in the first place.
Wildfires are by no means the only symptom of climate change. As global temperatures rise, so do the number of hurricanes, droughts, floods, and tropical storms across the globe. No nation will be spared the wrath of a disturbed climate. This past year, South Africa experienced its biggest drought on record. City officials in Cape Town were concerned that they would hit “Day-Zero,” a Dickensian nightmare under which the city would be forced to shut off water taps to prevent the reservoirs from completely running out of water.
The 2018 hurricane season wreaked unprecedented havoc on the East Coast of the US and the Caribbean Islands. Over 2,000 people in Puerto Rico died as a result of Hurricane Maria which also destroyed 80% of that island nation’s agricultural crops, causing over £3 billion in damages. Devastating floods and mudslides displaced over 12,000 people in Honduras in early October, killing nine residents. If nothing is done to combat climate change, stories like these will become commonplace.
So, what can be done? The IPCC report argues that in order to meet the 1.5°C goal in twelve years, the world needs to reach a net-output of zero carbon emissions by 2030. In order to do this, the report suggests urgent initiatives to develop new carbon sinks, such as a massive effort to plant millions of trees through “afforestation.” Reversing the world’s carbon emitting habits is a battle that will not be won easily. One can only hope that reluctant and cynical nations will come to terms with the urgency of climate change and agree to take immediate steps to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions before the earths’ climate is irreversibly altered, and humans are forced to confront their own extinction.