A couple of years back, I wrote about the 2018 IPCC reports.
We were, at the time and as a species, doing pretty badly at safeguarding the planet which is our only home. CO2, methane and other greenhouse gas emissions were rising. The planet was visibly warming, with a 1C rise since pre-industrial times. Media outlets gave a disproportionate amount of time to climate change skeptics, compared to the vast number of scientists who were in consensus about the human nature of our crisis, and the urgency.
We were warned, in those reports, that we needed to keep warming below 1.5C, to avoid tipping points – feedback loops that build on each other and make the problem even worse. Those tipping points can escalate the problem to an unimaginable 3 or 4C; off the charts for any of the models available at the time.
Even at lower temperatures, we were told, dramatic changes would occur. We could expect more extreme hot events (droughts and wildfires) and more precipitation (storms and floods). At higher temperatures, we could expect to see areas of the globe become uninhabitable. The ice at the poles would melt. Sea levels would rise. Patterns of climate and current would be disrupted, possibly irreversibly.
So how did we do?
There’s a bit in “Apollo 13” where things have gone horribly wrong for the astronauts. They are ordered to shut down their fuel valves. Astronaut Jim Lovell, played by Tom Hanks, looks at the others, realizing that they will no longer be able to reach the target they so fiercely, desperately wanted. “We just lost the moon,” he says.
That was how I felt reading the IPCC reports this time round.
The IPCC reports this year summarize what they think will happen over the next decades, with five different scenarios depending on how we do with our GHG (Greenhouse Gas) emissions. They describe the likely temperature rise for each of the worst scenarios, finishing with the best possible future, where GHG emissions drop quickly to very low levels:
Global warming of 1.5°C relative to 1850-1900 … more likely than not to be reached under the very low GHG emissions scenario.
In other words, there is now no scenario in which global warming does not, at best estimate, hit 1.5C.
We just lost the moon.
We didn’t just lose it for the future generations. The previous reports talked about the overall rise in terms of decades. This current report says we’ll more than likely hit that figure in 20 years. For those of us who are intending to survive that long, we lost it for us. This is happening here, right now, across the world: in Germany and Belgium where 70 people died in flooding, in the droughts and wildfires of California, Greece and Turkey, even here in London.
There is not a place left on the surface of this planet which is not affected by our way of life.
For the children of future generations, some aspects of their future are now baked-in. The sea level is rising. Arctic ice is melting. The ocean is warming and becoming more acid. Species are dying. All of these things will continue to happen.
But… it isn’t all bleak. And at least we know, so we can do something about it.
We can change, dramatically, when we have to.
The pandemic of the last 2 years has shown us that we can indeed turn on a dime; and there is support for a leaner, fairer way of living. Polls in the UK show that only 6% of the public want to return to the pre-pandemic economy. We’ve realized we can manage with less.
Electric vehicles are becoming more commonplace, and the infrastructure to support them is growing. Green energy is more widely available. Pension funds are beginning to divest from fossil fuel. More people are switching to plant-based diets (and if you haven’t, at least consider giving up beef).
The changes are good. We need more of them. The IPCC reports now suggest that we will come to equilibrium at 3C above industrial levels, no matter what we do; but they have very much more certainty about that than they did in 2018. And 3C would be appalling, even compared to the chaos that we are experiencing now.
We need to make changes.
We need to find a way to deal with the ISDS laws, which oil companies are using to sue governments introducing environmental policies.
We need to change the way we heat our homes.
We need to travel less. Consume less. Reuse more, including buildings. And stop cutting down trees.
We are out of time.
There is a third part to the IPCC report, due out next year, but it’s already been leaked. It shows that we need to see emissions peak, and then fall, by 2025, to stand any chance of staying at the lowest-impact scenario. And it is worth staying there, because if we can, then the temperature towards the end of the century begins to fall again, dropping back to 1.4C.
This is a unique moment in the history of humankind.
We are already too late to stop some of the irreversible effects of climate change, the impacts of which will affect every generation to come hereafter.
We can no longer save everything.
There is still so much left to save.
Every single fraction of a degree matters. Every tipping point we avoid is a thousand species; millions (possibly billions) of human lives; millenia less for our beautiful and fragile ecosystem to recover.
The tipping points are already happening.
The Amazon is no longer absorbing carbon, but emitting CO2.
Rain in Greenland is melting the ice sheet (which reveals darker rock and water, which absorbs more heat).
Wildfires in Siberia are releasing huge quantities of CO2, and methane is thawing from the permafrost.
The Gulf Stream current, which keeps the UK and parts of Europe warm, is showing signs of collapse.
If we do not constrain ourselves, nature will do it for us; and it will not do it fairly. We know that the impoverished Global South will bear the worst of it; but those of us in wealthier nations will suffer too.
In the last 2 years since I last wrote about the IPCC reports, our politicians have done almost nothing. The UK government has spent almost £4bn of public money on funding fossil fuels. Biden has approved a record 2,100 permits for drilling for oil and gas.
Our media focused on the IPCC reports on the day they came out. The next day, the front pages were mostly empty of anything about the greatest crisis our species has ever faced.
A friend said, “Politicians aren’t leaders. They’re followers.” They cannot afford to carry out what they perceive as unpopular acts, lest they be voted out.
Policies are often created before the actual summits that enact them. When our politicians go to COP26 in Glasgow at the end of October, we need them to see, to know, that this is what we want. That we are willing to do the hard work, pay the taxes, give up bad habits, and save the planet. Whatever it costs, it will be less than doing nothing; which will cost us everything left.
All we need is their help.
That’s why I’ll be in Trafalgar Square tomorrow morning: to renew the focus on what must be done.
Maybe I’ll see you there too.
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