New climate models and measures show that the consequences of climate change in this century may be far worse than hitherto assumed. Meanwhile, the global effort to fight climate change seems to have stagnated. Has the time come to panic?
Will we have time to save the world?
The future doesn’t look bright, but rather warm and wet, with far less biodiversity than today. At least, there is a lot of evidence that suggests this. We are heading for a slow but all-encompassing climate disaster, and there doesn’t seem to be a willingness to do anything about it, despite a growing climate focus among citizens, countless climate demonstrations, and more people rejecting flying on vacation. Things look to be going the wrong way.
In late May, a team of climate scientists published new and better calculations of how much sea levels will rise towards 2100. There now looks to be a significant risk that the sea could rise more than two meters within the next 80 years – more than twice the maximum the latest UN climate report estimates. During the following century, sea levels may rise another 5-6 meters, even though global temperatures don’t rise more than 5°C. This will not just mean that all the world’s coastal cities will be partly or wholly flooded; it also threatens vast coastal farmland areas with the associated risk of mass starvation in a world that by all accounts could house more than 11 billion people by 2100. It has been estimated that global food production must increase by 60 percent towards 2050 to feed the world’s population, but climate change has already reduced the yield of wheat by 5.5 percent since 1980, compared to what it would have been without climate change, with similar losses for other crops.
A week ago, it was announced that the CO2 content in the atmosphere is now higher than ever before, and rapidly rising. CO2 is the most important greenhouse gas and is now measured at more than 415 ppm (parts per million); a growth of 15 ppm in less than three years. In 1910, the atmospheric level of CO2 reached 300 ppm, and we need to go back more than 800,000 years to find a higher CO2 content than that. The last time atmospheric CO2 content was as high as today, trees grew at the South Pole, and sea levels were 20 meters higher.
Also in May, the UN organisation IPBES published a report on biodiversity which, based on an analysis of 15,000 research projects, found that a million animal and plant species are in danger of extinction and that the trend has worsened over the last fifty years. The reason is a grim cocktail of deforestation, unsustainable resource use, pollution, and climate change. Biodiversity isn’t just a value in itself; it is important for the survival of ecosystems and an important source of new medicines and other biotechnology. Protecting biodiversity is one of the UN’s 17 global Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, and recently, the UN announced that we are moving the wrong way for achieving four of these goals: reducing inequality, fighting global warming, decreasing waste volume, and protecting biodiversity. There is very little to suggest that we will even get close to these goals by 2030.
Well then: are we at least moving the right way when it comes to sustainable energy like wind power and solar energy? Not really. Yes, the production of sustainable energy is growing, but the growth has stagnated at 60 percent of the level needed to meet the 2030 goals in the Paris Agreement. Despite growth in sustainable energy, the energy sector’s CO2 emissions grew 1.7 percent in 2018 alone. With a growing world population, global energy needs look to be growing faster than the production of sustainable energy. Today’s low costs of fossil fuels don’t do much to help the situation.
are we at least moving the right way when it comes to sustainable energy like wind power and solar energy? Not really. Yes, the production of sustainable energy is growing, but the growth has stagnated at 60 percent of the level needed to meet the 2030 goals in the Paris Agreement.
Emissions from airplanes are often mentioned as a major contributor. It has been estimated that a single holiday trip by plane from Europe to Thailand and back is responsible for as much CO2 emission as seven years’ consumption of beef, and the amount of air travel is expected to double over the next twenty years. Air travel, however, is only responsible for about two percent of global human CO2 emissions, while road travel (especially personal cars) accounts for six times that. The number of cars in the world is expected to double from about one billion in 2016 to two billion by 2040, with most of the growth in developing countries. Even though a growing share is expected to be electric cars, analyses by the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies show that electric cars are unlikely to account for more than a quarter of the global car fleet in 2040 – and hence, the number of fume-producing cars will grow by half in the next twenty years.
Even if human CO2 emissions were to magically stop entirely tomorrow, it would not in itself be enough to prevent massive climate change. The level of CO2 in the atmosphere is again half as much as it was before the beginning of the industrial age, and even without further emissions, CO2 levels will remain unnaturally high for decades to come, while the world grows ever warmer and more ice melts. Melting ice in the polar regions and from glaciers will not only make sea levels rise, but will also reduce the amount of sunlight reflected into space, and this is a self-sustaining source of global warming that could prove very difficult to reverse. These sorts of dynamic effects are difficult to calculate and hence aren’t typically accounted for in climate models – but that doesn’t mean that they are negligible. For this reason, climate models generally underestimate the magnitude of changes, and every time new dynamic effects are added (as with the new model for sea level rise mentioned above), the expected effects are adjusted upwards. This is unlikely to be the last time we see this happen.
Is it time to panic?
Things look dire. No doubt about that. We are already feeling the effects of climate change through more regular drought and rainstorms, more frequent and stronger hurricanes, more severe flooding disasters and lower yields of crops, and the way things look now, not a lot suggests that matters will improve over the coming centuries – quite the opposite. In light of this, it is very understandable that some will feel like crawling into a hole and ignoring what happens around them, while others shrug in defeat and carry on as usual – for what does it matter what I as an individual do, when the overall development is like a supertanker heading at full steam for the abyss at the end of the world, with its captain shouting: “Full speed ahead – things are going alright!”
Even so, it is too early to abandon hope. It may well be that the actions of one individual don’t amount to much, and even if we all boycott air travel and swap our old light bulbs for LED lamps, this is far from enough to halt the supertanker. Yet it still matters some, and if we also choose to support political measures and parties that are prepared to make a real effort against climate change, even if it costs something, it matters a little more.
Some point to new technology as the solution to the problems, and it certainly is an important element – perhaps the most important. But for some, the promise of future technological solutions becomes a pretext for not acting now, since we can do it much better in the future, without having to give up the little pleasures in our daily lives. Some even argue from a cost-benefit analysis that we should entirely dispense with costly solutions today because it will be far cheaper to solve the problems in a decade or two. Or three or five. In fifty years, when the world is plagued even harder by climate change, this argument is undoubtedly equally valid, so why do anything ever? In the future, technology will solve all our problems, and this will also be the case for our future’s future.
If we really believe that climate change should be handled with technology, it is important that we start right now. Technological advances are based on experiences, and if we don’t capture the costly experiences today, we will have no basis for creating better solutions tomorrow. There aren’t any good reasons to wait to invest in climate technology – sustainable energy, fusion power, carbon storage, energy-saving products and means of transport, recycling technology, and so on – and very good reasons not to wait.
Of course, we should all of us – citizens, companies, and politicians – improve our climate footprint as much as we can even now, even if it costs us a little money and a little convenience. However, this is not enough in itself. Saving our world demands large investments in new technology – the sooner, the better.
We must be prepared for climate changes becoming worse before they become better – perhaps a lot worse. Even so, a major climate disaster is better than a devastating climate disaster. Perhaps we need to get used to the idea that a major climate disaster is the best outcome we can realistically hope for, despite climate protests, citizen initiatives, and political measures.
It is no easy thing to turn a supertanker around. But the alternative is worse.