Blog post: Sounding The Alarm: It’s Time For Climate Action
It’s already here
The year 2018 was riddled with climate extremes that sounded alarms we can no longer sleep through. We’ve seen a worldwide increase in amplified natural disasters, and extreme weather events. The scientific consensus is that climate change is not some dystopian future–it’s already here, and it’s just getting warmed up. Intense and long-lasting heatwaves broke all-time records all around the world causing adverse environmental impacts. Devastating droughts in South Africa caused potable water to almost run out, and Argentina experienced the driest season in 25 years, withering its crops. California experienced one of the deadliest fires in the state’s history which cost $16.5 billion in damage, and yielded a fire tornado! Sweden confronted a wave of wildfires that extended as far north as the Arctic Circle, and fires in Greece were so bad people had to flee into the sea to escape the flames. Japan encountered the worst floods since 1982 leaving 230 people dead, and India suffered its worst flooding since the 1920s claiming more than 500 lives. We also saw an unusually high number of violent storms in 2018–particularly in the Pacific–including 10 storms that reached Category 4 or 5. This was the second highest number of Cat 5s on record since 1990.
Although global temperature changes and extreme weather events have always occurred, scientific evidence shows that human activity is driving them to unprecedented levels. The burning of fossil fuels increases the release of greenhouse gases–like carbon dioxide (CO2)–into the atmosphere, which trap heat radiating from earth, and radiate it back towards the surface. As a result. the atmospheric concentration of CO2 has increased dramatically to a dangerous threshold which is driving climate change. We have gone from a pre-industrial era concentration of 280 parts per million (ppm) to at least 400 ppm today. The oceans are warming–melting glaciers and increasing sea levels–which fuels the intensity of storms and hurricanes. Warmer seas evaporate more quickly, and warmer air holds more water vapor which increases the chance of rainfall. This is why around 38% more rain fell during Hurricane Harvey than would have otherwise. This warming also makes dry areas become drier. Hot, dry conditions, combined with strong winds increase the intensity and spread of wildfires. This is why wildfires in the western US now burn nearly twice the area they would without climate change.
It’s not going anywhere
Going into 2019, glaciers around Antarctica are melting more rapidly than predicted, and the extent of sea ice is at a record low. New reports show that last year was the fourth warmest on record (the five warmest years in the global record have all come in the past five years), and also the hottest on record for Earth’s oceans since global records began in 1958. Atmospheric levels of CO2 are set to rise by near-record amounts in 2019, and these events show no sign of slowing down. In 2015, The Paris Climate Agreement tried to respond to this growing challenge, and saw countries committing to limit global warming to 1.5 °C pre-industrial levels. They commissioned the Nobel Prize-winning IPCC to produce a climate report to assess and advise this effort. Thousands of scientific studies were reviewed over the course of several years to come to a sobering consensus: we are not on track to limit rising temperatures, and the proposed limit of 1.5 °C will be reached as early as 2030 without dramatic action to cut emissions. Beyond 1.5 °C, propelling to 2 °C would make a huge difference in terms of risks and impacts. For example, at 2 °C, extreme weather events–like the heat experienced in the northern hemisphere last summer–will become much more common and severe. The likelihood of an Arctic ocean free of sea ice in summer will be 10 times more likely than at 1.5 °C. Many African countries and small island nations will deal with crop failures, heat waves, and disease–or may disappear completely. Global sea levels will continue rising, endangering up to 80 million people by 2100, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
If this wasn’t alarming enough, several credible sources suggest that the IPCC’s findings were conservative, and understated the threats. The report doesn’t account for all of the warming that has already occurred by using incorrect pre-industrial definitions. The IPCC largely relies on drawing down carbon from the atmosphere to limit warming to 1.5 °C. However, this technology isn’t viable, and fully developed yet. Most importantly, the report excludes self-reinforcing amplifying feedback loops, aka “wildcards”, which are tipping points that destabilize the climate even further, creating an uncontrollable domino effect. One of the more well-known tipping points is in the Arctic where the thawing of permafrost can release large amounts of carbon dioxide, and methane which is 30 times more potent in causing warming than CO2. This feedback could become the second strongest source of greenhouse gases. Basically, the IPCC played it safe, and predicted a 12 year window of action to avoid a 2 °C warming. In reality, we have much less time– we are currently on track to hit 3-4 °C by the end of century, even if every country meets their Paris Agreement emission targets (which is also unlikely, as the agreement is non-binding). A 4 °C world would be mostly uninhabitable with unprecedented heatwaves, extinctions, famine, continents turning into deserts, and sea levels drowning out cities like Amsterdam and New York.
What are we waiting for?
Recently, the US National Climate Assessment–backed by 13 federal agencies–validated the IPCC findings suggesting that climate change is already wreaking havoc, and could soon devastate US economy, health and the environment. In fact, the 3 most expensive weather events of 2018 happened in the US (California’s Camp Fire at $16.5 billion, Hurricane Michael at $16 billion, and Hurricane Florence at $14 billion). Meanwhile, the White House has been in full environmental deregulation mode, and is in the process of rolling back the Clean Power Plan and fuel economy rules that target the two largest sources of greenhouse gases. Trump discredited his own government’s report, by saying “I don’t believe it,” and saying that the climate goes up and down while doing a wave motion with his hand. He was echoed by Republican politicians that downplayed the findings reciting the same mindless denialist script. Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who is now the acting EPA administrator (in the process to be confirmed permanently) said he hadn’t even read either IPCC nor the US reports. A 3.4 percent spike was observed in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions last year, the second largest annual spike in 20 years. A new report by Oil Change International said that the United States is set to “unleash the world’s largest burst” of carbon emissions from new oil and gas development if it goes ahead with its plans to expand drilling.
Similarly, many governments and businesses around the world have taken only tepid and inconsistent steps to mitigate the problem, or made no effort at all. There is resistance in curbing greenhouse-gas emissions because our systems are designed to benefit the wealthy, and corporations. There are the 100 or so corporations responsible for 71% of global carbon emissions–they should bear the most responsibility. Of course, individuals can take action to reduce their carbon footprint, but let’s not misplace the blame. At the current level of commitments, the world is on course to go over a disastrous 3 °C of warming. We may have already reached a tipping point, but it is not too late to change course if there is swift global action, and an immediate transition away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy. Simply put: the more carbon we burn, the more out of control this crisis gets. According to the IPCC report, governments around the world must take “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” including transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings and infrastructure, transport, food systems and consumption, forest management, cities and more to slash emissions, and begin reducing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Basically everything we do increases our global carbon footprint, and the transformation needs to happen on a grand scale. So what are we waiting for?
We have work to do!
Understandably, many are feeling climate grief from seeing the loss of our environments, and feeling like disaster is locked in. It might sound easy to throw in the towel, but the stakes are too high for inaction. There is plenty to be hopeful about. The renewable energy market is looking bright, with technology costs rapidly falling, and job creation booming. Public opinion is shifting more than ever. For example, there is an unprecedented surge of acceptance and concern among Americans, following a grim year marked by intense climate events. Activists and protesters are turning up the heat on those profiting from wrecking the planet. Mass climate strikes led by young students are sweeping Europe, and causing ripple movements around the world. A Green New Deal has exploded onto the US political scene, and is becoming a 2020 elections hot topic. If this isn’t motivating enough, the thought of leaving a habitable planet for our children should be. Around the world, communities are being damaged or destroyed by rising oceans and extreme weather, while safe drinking water is fast becoming a luxury. This is a wake-up call we cannot afford to sleep through. There is progress being made, but we need a global push, and urgent climate action. We need to remind ourselves of what we are capable of when we choose to act. This is a challenge we must accept, and we have a lot of work to do. The year 2018 was riddled with alarming climate extremes, 2019 needs to be the year of climate action.