Photo: Joel Filipe/Unsplash
- What used to be predictions of ‘what could happen in a warmer world’ are now our lived reality.
- Some of the worst effects of climate change will come not from severe weather but from the irreversible loss of species and ecosystems.
- If we delay action, within a few decades we will be looking back at today’s extremes as “the good old days”.
We waited with trepidation for the summary report from the international body of scientists that weighs the global evidence for climate change and its impacts every 6-8 years, and which was published earlier this month.
Since the first report was published in 1990, the tone has changed from “Are we screwed?” to “How badly are we screwed?” Although the report reads like a disaster novel, what is new is the added confidence and clarity that what we do now matters most. If we stop emitting carbon dioxide, warming will stop fairly soon thereafter. This is good news – that we know the solution – but it presents us with a stark challenge and with a very short timeframe.
As we consume this latest installment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we are struck by three realisations. First, Earth’s surface is heating up ever faster. How much of this is due to humans? All of it. The scientific language used to describe the role of humans is “unequivocal”. And we can see the effects of excess heating in climate extremes (heat waves, rainfall events, droughts and tropical cyclones) around the world.
Second, more evidence has accumulated that carbon dioxide emissions and Earth’s temperature are directly related. More fossil fuel being combusted means more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the air, which means more global warming. Temperatures will not stop increasing until we stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. To limit warming to 1.5º C above the average pre-industrial temperature, we must halve fossil-fuel burning by 2030 and stop it entirely by 2050, so that the net of all human activities comes to zero carbon dioxide emissions.
Third, what used to be predictions of ‘what could happen in a warmer world’ are now our lived reality. We are living through hard and hot times. Is this the new normal? No. Temperatures will not stop increasing until we stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. And if we stop adding CO2 to the atmosphere by 2050, temperatures will stop increasing (within a few years), and we should be able to limit warming to about 1.5º C. So climate extremes will actually get worse because for every additional bit of heating, the impacts worsen.
The question we should be asking now is: how much worse will the extremes get? One IPCC author put it bluntly: If we delay action, within a few decades we will be looking back at today’s extremes as “the good old days”.
What are our options?
Given what the report says, what are the feasible climate solutions? The rational response is to work hard and fast to limit heating up Earth. The clearest way is to phase out energy-intensive consumption as fast as we can, especially in the world’s largest economies, such as the US, the European Union (EU) and China. This is the central argument of the proponents of the so-called degrowth movement in the global north.
Additionally, we need to get off fossil fuels while electrifying everything, and create power using renewable sources. Proper planning, end-of-life retirement of fossil-fuel infrastructure and creating the related jobs can result in the required phase-out over a few decades. Policies needed to support this approach must include 100% renewable electricity standards, promoting high-quality public transport and higher prices on carbon – all implemented in a manner that protects the poorest people against the inflationary effects of climate action.
The US and the EU have started to bend the CO2 curve downward, but have an outsized responsibility to do much more, and much faster, in order to lead the world to a safer future.
Implications for biodiversity
Another point made clear by the new report is that we have reached a point where reversing climate-change’s consequences will be difficult, and in fact might not occur for centuries. The processes of sea and land ice loss, for example, are now in motion, like rumbling freight trains that will not stop any time soon and will be even more difficult to pull back. Worse still, changes to the biosphere will be truly irreversible. These trains are headed off the cliff.
Some of the worst effects of climate change will come not from severe weather but from the irreversible loss of species and ecosystems. Last year, an analogue to the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), released an equally devastating report on the state of biodiversity and ecosystems. Scientific evidence is now clear that Earth has embarked on its sixth extinction crisis, on par with extraterrestrial asteroids and geologic upheavals. But this time we’re the asteroids. Most current extinctions stem from land-use change and over-exploitation, and climate change is now accelerating these risks.
Whether it’s heat, rain or sea-level rise, many species are hurtling towards extinction across Earth. Extinction rates are expected to accelerate with each degree’s rise of surface temperature. Just a few years ago, this temperature stood at 0.8º C above pre-industrial levels. With this report, we have reached 1.1º C. Every year, we climb higher up the arc of biodiversity loss.
Although some species are flexible enough to deal with climate change, many are not. Take the Nilgiri tahr, a goat living on the cool mountains of the Western Ghats. Although once a conservation success story – having rebounded in population size since the turn of the century – climate change is predicted to shift their cool climates uphill and into thin air, leaving less land for this iconic species to live on.
The same thing happening on these mountain ‘sky islands’ is happening on other islands. Even small changes in climate on an oceanic island can spell disaster for an endemic species living there. This danger is especially acute for tropical species, which have typically adapted to narrower temperature-ranges to match their less-variable tropical climates, and thus have less scope to deal with temperature change than their more temperate relatives.
Like sea ice, this process of biodiversity decline has already been set in motion and is accelerating. But unlike sea ice, extinct species will never return.
Like many things in life, we will likely not realise how much we needed them until these species are gone. First, some of these species will have played key roles in maintaining ecosystem services that determine our health, well-being and economy. They are the unpaid workers that clean our water, make our food and buffer us from storms.
In addition, we will lose the species that are central to our cultural diversity and ingenuity. Each species possesses untapped knowledge to solve future problems. As we lose them, we are burning the great books of knowledge on Earth before we have had a chance to read them. Ethically, letting these extinctions happen also constitutes a grave injustice against the non-human members of Earth’s living communities.
Political, social justice implications
Biodiversity loss and climate destabilisation are not merely environmental issues. Human well-being depends crucially on the integrity of our planetary system. Unfortunately, the peoples of the world won’t bear these threats evenly. The poor and the less ‘developed’ will shoulder these costs in a disproportionate manner – relative to the more affluent and to their contributions to climate change.
The US and Europe have, after all, contributed nearly 50% of the total accumulated stock of greenhouse gases that we struggle to contain today. And even these high figures don’t account for the extra emissions from goods produced overseas for the American and the European markers. Climate catastrophes will strike everywhere – and the poor will be the least resilient and least able to recover from their impact. Climate change is making weather more extreme – and it will make wealth disparity more extreme as well.
Delays in climate action have made the task of climate mitigation much harder, thus making carbon capture and storage nearly unavoidable. These technologies do not exist at the scale or cost that will be needed, and questions remain about how they will affect agriculture, land use and forest ecosystems. Risks to these ecosystems and land use patterns are also risks to the lives and livelihoods of most of the world’s population.
Moreover, the anticipated-land use changes needed to achieve net-zero emissions could violate the rights of indigenous peoples and other rural communities, whose resource rights are often not recorded or respected by governments and corporations responding to political and economic incentives.
We conclude with a call for sanity in climate action. The US and the EU don’t only need to undertake effective mitigation measures in their own countries, but also to help the countries in the global south deal with the unavoidable costs and burdens of the climate crisis that they mostly perpetrated.
Our hope is that, one day, we can read future reports of the IPCC not with apprehension but with hope as we see Earth cool again without relying on extremely risky technologies, such as solar geoengineering. The challenge is daunting – but if we act now and work for transformative change, we can say in 2050 that we are in the new normal.
Anji Seth is the interim head and professor, Department of Geography, and leads the atmospheric sciences group at the University of Connecticut. Her research currently examines monsoons in a warming world and extreme heat events in past and future climates.
Mark Urban is the Arden chair and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and director of the Center of Biological Risk, University of Connecticut.
Prakash Kashwan is an associate professor of political science and co-director of the research programme on economic and social rights, Human Rights Institute, University of Connecticut, Storrs. For more information about his research and writing, see his website.