The Climate Emergency
“We are in a planetary emergency” Prof. James Hansen, former Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies
“Climate change is a medical emergency…It thus demands an emergency response…” Prof. Hugh Montgomery, director of the University College London Institute for Human Health and Performance, Lancet Commission Co-Chair
At the end of 2018, the UN Secretary General warned us:
Humanity and life on Earth now face a “direct existential threat”
The world must act swiftly and robustly to keep global warming under 1.5°C and try to avoid utterly catastrophic impacts to life on Earth.
Human activity is causing irreparable harm to the life on this world. A mass extinction event, only the sixth in roughly 540 million years, is underway. Many current life forms could be annihilated or at least committed to extinction by the end of this century.
The air we breathe, the water we drink, the earth we plant in, the food we eat, and the beauty and diversity of nature that nourishes our psychological well-being — all are being corrupted and compromised by the political and economic systems that promote and support our modern, consumer-focused lifestyles.
We must act while we still can. What we are seeing now is nothing compared to what could come.
If the climate and ecological emergency is not addressed, its effects on global human society may spiral out of control. They include:
Sea level rise
Increased risk of wars and conflicts
But our leaders are failing in their duty to act on our behalf. Our current systems of governance are compromised by a focus on profits and economic growth. Politicians can be influenced by lobbies of powerful corporations, and the media are hampered by the vested interests of corporate advertisers undermining our democratic values.
We have run out of the luxury of time to react incrementally.
We must radically and immediately begin reducing emissions and improving carbon absorption, drawing it down and locking it up again.
Only a peaceful planet-wide mobilization of the scale of World War II will give us a chance to avoid the worst-case scenarios and restore a safe climate.
The task before us is daunting, but big changes have happened before.
Let’s make a better world.
The Stanford Research Institute (SRI) warns the American Petroleum Institute, a major fossil fuel industry group, that rising CO2 levels are causing rising temperatures with foreseeable effects like drastic sea level rise and environmental damage. This was a familiar scientific argument: Svante Arrhenius had described the greenhouse effect of CO2 in 1896, and The New York Times had published similar predictions in 1956.
Instead of addressing the problem, the fossil fuel industry doubles down on its deadly products and begins designing a propaganda campaign to conceal the facts behind climate change.
In a review of evidence linking fossil fuels to global warming, Exxon scientist James F. Black warns company leadership that “[p]resent thinking holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”
Exxon responds by funding a major research effort to study this link. When it verifies that fossil fuels are causing rapid and dangerous changes to the climate with “potentially catastrophic events” as a result, it responds by shutting down the research and embarking on a decades-long misinformation effort.
NASA scientist James Hansen testifies before Congress on the connection between fossil fuel combustion and other industrial activities and the warming climate. The United Nations creates the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to study the problem. All governments in the world, including the United States, are on notice that immediate action is needed to curb the use of fossil fuels.
While we still wait for a federal response to climate change, more than half of all industrial carbon emissions have been released since 1988.
In 1992, the Union of Concerned Scientists, which included the majority of living science Nobel laureates, penned the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity,” calling on humankind to curtail environmental destruction and warning that “a great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided.” They showed that humans were on a collision course with the natural world. They proclaimed that fundamental changes were urgently needed to avoid the consequences our present course would bring.
The authors of the 1992 declaration feared that humanity was pushing Earth’s ecosystems beyond their capacities to support the web of life. They described how we are fast approaching many of the limits of what the biosphere can tolerate without substantial and irreversible harm. They implored that we cut greenhouse gas emissions, phase out fossil fuels, reduce deforestation, and reverse the trend of collapsing biodiversity.
The United Nations creates the Framework Convention on Climate Change to limit greenhouse gas emissions to “a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human induced) interference with the climate system.” The Convention will eventually include 197 countries, including the United States.
The Waxman-Markey Bill, the only serious effort to address climate change by the U.S. Congress, dies in the Senate. In subsequent years, as the climate crisis worsens, legislative willingness to address the issue declines, especially among Republicans.
125 countries sign the Paris Agreement, part of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Each country commits to a Nationally Determined Contribution to limit its greenhouse gas emissions, with a global goal of capping total warming at 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (although 1.5 degrees is recognized as the limit beyond which we will see catastrophic outcomes). The Paris Agreement is non-binding. A year and a half later, the United States announces its intention to pull out of the Agreement.
In 2017, humanity was given a second notice. Over 15,000 scientists signed a new and even more urgently worded letter which warned that “To prevent widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss, humanity must practice a more environmentally sustainable alternative to business as usual. This prescription was well articulated by the world’s leading scientists 25 years ago, but in most respects, we have not heeded their warning. Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out. We must recognize, in our day-to-day lives and in our governing institutions, that Earth with all its life is our only home.”
Fossil fuel subsidies by governments around the world — including tax breaks, price controls, and costs associated with fossil fuels’ environmental and health consequences — average about $5 trillion (including $649 billion by the U.S. government). Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that 1.5 degree celsius warming will have far more adverse consequences than previously predicted, even as keeping warming to that level becomes nearly impossible thanks to global increases in fossil fuel extraction and combustion.
The U.S. government continues to promote fossil fuel development even as it cancels regulatory efforts to limit warming. Meanwhile, its top leaders deny the link between fossil fuels and climate change.
1.1 deg C
OUR HOUSE IS ON FIRE
Over 50% of the human addition of carbon to the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels has occurred in the last 25 years — i.e., since the IPCC was founded.
Human activities have caused the planet’s average surface temperature to rise about 1.1°C since the late 19th century. Most of the warming has occurred in the past 35 years.
As the global temperatures rises, we see an increase in extreme weather events such as heat waves and droughts. For example, scientists from the UK Met Office examined the extreme heat wave that struck Europe in the summer of 2003 (now known to have killed 70,000 people) and concluded that “it is very likely…that human influence has at least doubled the risk of a heat wave exceeding this threshold magnitude.” If we carry on burning fossil fuels, such an extreme heat wave will become an average summer for Europe by 2040, and almost all summers will be hotter than that by 2060! As shown in this graph:
Across the globe, calculations show that record-breaking extreme temperatures have become far more probable due to human-induced warming (for example: 2010 Syria; 2013 Korea; 2014 California; 2018 UK).
A 2018 study shows how deadly heat waves may limit the habitability of one of the world’s most populous regions. It concluded that continued burning of fossil fuels would lead to heat extremes that exceeded “the threshold defining what Chinese farmers may tolerate while working outdoors.”
Climate change is here in your lifetime:
1,000X extinction rates
A “biological annihilation” of wildlife in recent decades means the Sixth Mass Extinction in Earth’s history is underway.
Looking at the U.S., for example, a 2018 report by the National Wildlife Federation, the American Fisheries Society, and the Wildlife Society found that one of every three wildlife species in the country is vulnerable to extinction. 650 U.S. species are either known to be extinct already or have not been sighted at all in recent decades. The species affected include important pollinators like monarch butterflies, whose population in California declined by 86 percent in 2017-2018 alone. 70% of the U.S.’s freshwater mussels, which uphold food chains and water quality in river systems, are also imperiled or extinct. The same was already true of one in six American mammals and one in seven birds more than 20 years ago, according to the Nature Conservancy.
Globally, species are going extinct at rates up to 1,000 times the background rates typical of Earth’s past. The direct causes of biodiversity loss are habitat change, overexploitation, the introduction of invasive alien species, nutrient loading, and climate change.
The average rate of vertebrate species loss over the last century is up to 100 times higher than the background rate. The total number of vertebrate species that went extinct in the last century would have taken about 800 to 10,000 years to disappear if the background rate had prevailed.
The latest Living Planet Index shows an average decline of 60% in population sizes of thousands of vertebrate species around the world between 1970 and 2014.
More than a quarter of the assessed species (around 100,000) are threatened with extinction. That is 40% of all amphibians, 25% of all mammals, 34% of all conifers, 14% of all birds, 33% of reef-building corals, and 31% of sharks and rays.
Corals reefs are suffering mass die-offs from heat stress. These events are becoming much more common with back to back die-offs on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia in 2016 and 2017. The predictions are that at even at 2C of warming these heat waves will occur on an annual basis.
“20 years from now, every summer will be too hot for corals: they will disappear as dominant members of tropical reef systems by 2040-2050. It’s hard to argue it any other way.” – Prof. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland.
76% DECLINE IN FLYING INSECT BIOMASS
Catastrophic reductions in global insect populations have profound consequences for ecological food chains and human crop pollination.
There is strong evidence that many insect populations are under serious threat and are declining in many places across the globe. Multiple pressures might include habitat loss, agro-chemical pollutants, invasive species, and climate change.
A 27-year-long population monitoring study in Germany revealed a dramatic 76% decline in flying insect biomass.
And a new study by Dutch scientists found that butterfly numbers had fallen by over 80% in the last 130 years. The authors concluded that “industrial agriculture is simply leaving hardly any room for nature.”
global health threats
One of the world’s leading medical journals, The Lancet, carried out a major review which concluded that climate changed posed “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century” because of both the direct impacts of extreme weather events and indirect disruption to the social and ecological systems that sustain us.
More frequent and severe water extremes, including droughts and floods, impact agricultural production, while rising temperatures translate into increased water demand in agriculture sectors.
“We have already observed impacts of climate change on agriculture. We have assessed the amount of climate change we can adapt to. There’s a lot we can’t adapt to even at 2ºC. At 4ºC the impacts are very high and we cannot adapt to them” – Dr. Rachel Warren, University of East Anglia
The number of extreme climate-related disasters, including extreme heat, droughts, floods, and storms, has doubled since the early 1990s, with an average of 213 of these events occurring every year during the period of 1990–2016. These harm agricultural productivity, contributing to shortfalls in food availability, with knock-on effects causing food price hikes and income losses that reduce people’s access to food.
People across 51 countries and territories face crisis levels of acute food insecurity or worse, requiring immediate emergency action.
2015: 80 million people
2016: 108 million people
2017: 124 million people
The risk of extreme weather hitting several major food-producing regions of the world at the same time could triple by 2040 (1-in-100-year event to 1-in-30).
A recent study looking at the impact of climate change on food production for the top four maize-exporting countries, which currently account for over 85% of global maize exports, found that “the probability that they have simultaneous production losses greater than 10% in any given year is presently virtually zero, but it increases to 7% under 2°C warming and 86% under 4°C warming.”
DROUGHT AND SCARCITY
Water withdrawals grew at almost twice the rate of population in the twentieth century.
The global water cycle is intensifying due to climate change, with wetter regions generally becoming wetter and drier regions becoming even drier. A 2018 UN report highlights that at present, an estimated 3.6 billion people (nearly half the global population) live in areas that are potentially water-scarce at least one month per year, and this population could increase to some 4.8–5.7 billion by 2050.
Rising temperatures will melt at least one-third of the Himalayas’ glaciers by the end of the century even if we limit the temperature rise to 1.5°C. Melting glaciers in both the Andes and the Himalayas threatens the water supplies of hundreds of millions people living downstream.
A severe drought in Cape Town in 2018 led to severe water restrictions being put in place. The city came to within just days of turning off its water supply – dubbed ‘Day Zero’. Climate scientists have now calculated that climate change has already made a drought of this severity go from a 1-in-300-year event to being a 1-in-100 year event. At 2°C of warming, a drought of this severity will happen roughly once every 33 years.
Sea level rises have accelerated in recent decades. Rising sea levels are caused primarily by two factors related to global warming: the added water from melting ice sheets and glaciers and the expansion of seawater as it warms. Sea level rises will cause inundation of low-lying land, islands, and coastal cities globally.
As the sea level rises higher over the next 15 to 30 years, tidal flooding is expected to occur much more often, causing severe disruption to coastal communities and even rendering some areas unusable — all within the timeframe of a typical home mortgage.
2°C warming would threaten to inundate areas now occupied by 130 million people while an increase to 4°C could lock in enough eventual sea level rise to submerge land currently home to 470 to 760 million people globally.
The land ice sheets in both Antarctica and Greenland have been losing mass since 2002. Both ice sheets have seen an acceleration of ice mass loss since 2009. Antarctica is losing six times more ice mass annually now than it was 40 years ago.
In 2014, a team from NASA found that part of the West Antarctic ice sheet had already begun what they described as an “unstoppable” collapse, locking in at least a meter of sea level rise. If we continue warming, we will trigger the collapse of more sectors of the ice sheets.
“Sea level is rising much faster and Arctic sea ice cover shrinking more rapidly than we previously expected. Unfortunately, the data now show us that we have underestimated the climate crisis in the past.” Stefan Rahmstorf, Professor of Physics of the the Oceans.
The oceans have already become 30% more acidic. As carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels dissolves, it alters the chemistry of the sea water. On our current emission trajectory, by 2100, the pH increase of the ocean will see a 150% increase in acidity! This will affect marine life from shellfish to whole coral reef communities by removing needed minerals that they use to grow their shells. The oceanic conditions will be unlike those marine ecosystems have experienced for the last 14 million years
Present ocean acidification is occurring approximately ten times faster than anything experienced during the last 300 million years, jeopardising the ability of ocean systems to adapt.
Arctic sea ice is now declining at a rate of 12.8 percent per decade.
Summer Arctic sea ice is predicted to disappear almost completely by the middle of this century.
“We may lose the summer ice cover as early as 2030. This is in itself much earlier than projections from nearly all climate model simulations.” – Prof. Mark Serreze
Scientists are now investigating connections between the huge changes we have seen in the Arctic and changes to the jet stream resulting in increasingly dramatic impacts on extreme weather events at lower latitudes.
All forms of pollution were responsible in 2015 for an estimated 9 million premature deaths — 16% of all deaths worldwide — as well as for 268 million disability-adjusted life-years. Pollution is thus the world’s largest environmental cause of disease and premature death
As the world gets hotter and more crowded, our engines continue to pump out dirty emissions, and half the world has no access to clean fuels or technologies (e.g. stoves, lamps). The very air we breathe is growing dangerously polluted: nine out of ten people now breathe polluted air, which kills 7 million people every year (ambient air pollution: 4.2 million deaths; household air pollution: 2.8 million deaths).
Nitrate from agriculture is now the most common chemical contaminant in the world’s groundwater aquifers. These pollutants can also dramatically affect aquatic ecosystems. For example, they can cause eutrophication as nutrients accumulate in lakes and coastal waters, impacting biodiversity and fisheries. Ocean dead zones with zero oxygen have quadrupled in size since 1950, suffocating the organisms that live in those areas.
WE’RE LOSING OUR SOIL
More than 95% of what we eat comes from soil. It takes about 500 years to form 2.5 cm of topsoil under normal agricultural condition.
Soil erosion and degradation has been increased dramatically by the human activities of deforestation for agriculture, overgrazing, and use of agrochemicals.
50% of the planet’s topsoil has been lost in the last 150 years, leading to increased pollution, flooding, and desertification. Desertification itself currently affects more than 2.7 billion people.
By 2050, land degradation and climate change together are predicted to reduce crop yields by an average of 10 percent globally and up to 50 percent in certain regions.
Earthworms cannot compensate for the loss of topsoil as they too are being depleted by 80% or more from intensive agrichemical fields. Several species of worms are extinct and many others are likely heading that way.