Life at 1.5

October 1, 2017

 

1.5 Degrees -  The Facts

  • The Earth is anticipated to exceed the 1.5’ C milestone in about 15 years — between 2032 and 2039 (Peter de Menocal, Paleoclimate scientist, Columbia University)

The Pace of Warming

 

Mr de Menocal has also said that if we keep to our current emissions scenario, we are in danger of hitting the 1.5 mark much earlier. His prediction is shared by Nasa who believe 5 more years of carbon dioxide emissions at current levels will virtually wipe out any chance of restraining temperatures to 1.5’C.

 

Their calculations were based on evidence gathered by means of a Nasa reconstruction, which was derived from paleoclimatology proxies [1]. It showed that the pace of temperature increase over recent decades outstrips anything that has occurred since the year 500 and all signs point towards a bleak worldwide weather forecast - 'Over the coming 100 years, the planet will heat up at a rate ‘at least’ 20 times faster than the historical average'.  This reconstruction was done in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which found that the global temperature typically rose by between 4-7’C over a period of 5000 years as the world moved out of the ice ages. To sum up, the temperature rise clocked up over the past century has been around 10 times faster than previous rates of warming and simply put, this is bad news.

 

Changes in the average temperature of an entire planet, even if it is just by a couple of degrees, is a big deal. Increasing temperatures will shrink the polar ice caps, make large areas of the Middle East and North Africa unbearable to live in and accelerate what’s known as the Earth’s sixth mass extinction of global wildlife.

 

The very unusual and complex problem we’re currently facing, is the rapid rate of change and the amount of carbon dioxide filling up the atmosphere. This in turn exposes us to a plethora of risks that puts everything at stake and by everything I’m talking about the ‘items’ we rely on to secure our physical human survival.

 

Rises in temperature threaten to severely, and in some cases, irreversibly damage our food and water supplies, shelter, energy grids and health…to name just a few of my favourite things. Lingering carbon dioxide currently emitted from power generation, transport and agriculture is already likely to raise sea levels by 3 feet by the end of the century, and potentially by 70 feet in the centuries to come. None of us can afford a breakdown to occur in these ecosystems. A damaged ecosystem will catalyse the fundamental earthly problems we’re already facing. At present, roughly half the carbon dioxide emitted from fossil fuels is soaked up again by plants and the oceans. Unfortunately, we have every reason to believe that fundamental ecological services such as these will become considerably less effective as the world warms. It is also safe to assume, the more denuded the ecosystems involved, the faster and more traumatic the repercussions.

 

Agriculture

 

No other basic human activity is so intimately bound up with the weather as agriculture. If temperatures get too hot, growth of edible food crops such as corn or grain will become stunted, leading to decreased crops, until they deplete altogether. Sadly, the poor will suffer the most, especially the rural poor. They will be forced to migrate internally, which will further contribute to the growth of cities, putting more strain on resources.

 

Urbanisation and overpopulation have already added considerable heat to the global climate dilemma. There is tentative econometric evidence that a deteriorating climate contributed to excessive urbanisation in Africa, which slowed rather than aided development.

 

Transitioning to a more urban economy understandably does go hand in hand with increases in agricultural productivity. More food will need to be farmed to cater to the rising global population, and this will lead to further deforestation. As such, climate change will induce a risky melange of increased migration, urbanisation and overpopulation, which will further strain the ecosystems we rely on for food.

 

Now, what exactly does this mean and what kind of an impact will 1.5 ‘C have on our already vulnerable agricultural future?

 

As it happens, can provide some clarity here.

 

When trying to quantify mammoth disaster scenarios of such scale, whether they be emotional or ecological, I often find myself remembering something wonderfully prolific I once heard Joseph Stiglitz say. Ready? Here it comes…

 

‘That which is not sustainable, will not be sustained’.

 

A matter of fact statement. And a simple, undeniable and frightening prediction.

 

Water

 

There is no substitute for it. As the world’s population continues to grow and becomes wealthier, so does the demand for water. The International Food Policy Research Institute suggests there will be a 40% gap between water demand and supply over the next 15 years.

 

According to the UN, by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could be under water stress. From human consumption to industrial and agricultural use, global demand for water and water services are expected to outpace current supply. The oceans, for instance, provide people with about 20 percent of their dietary protein and ocean acidification caused by climate change is going to make it difficult, if not virtually impossible, for thousands of species, including oysters, crabs and corals, to form their protective shells, which in turn disrupts the food web. In China, 80% of rivers are too toxic for fish, let alone human consumption. In its twelfth Five Year Plan, the Chinese government allocated about $110 billion per year to environmental protection and pollution control, including wastewater and solid waste treatment.

 

Agriculture is the largest user of water (70%), followed by industry (20%) and individuals (10%). Every person drinks 2-4 litres of water a day and eats 2,000-5,000 litres of virtual water in the food they consume. Water levels in reservoirs, have been getting perilously low in areas across the world. Gers in France for instance, was so affected by drought, authorities were forced to introduce water restrictions. Something that will become more and more common as the temperature rises.

 

Shelter

 

This is the single biggest investment at risk due to climate change. As temperatures warm and glaciers melt, the corresponding sea-level rise will destroy homes and cities. Since 2000, the size of glaciers in Iceland for instance, have reduced by 12 per cent.  About 40 percent of the world's population lives within 62 miles (100 kilometres) off the coast. According to the National Ocean Service, in 2010, more than 123 million people, or 39 percent of the United States' population lived in countries touching the shoreline. 

 

Right now, Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable places in the world to sea level rise, which is expected to make tens of [1] millions of people homeless by 2050.

 

What happens when this happens? Nothing good. How do you even quantify the scale of devastation this will cause?

 

Runaway climate

 

I thought this was an apt heading for a concluding paragraph, not just because it pays subtle homage to my appreciation for Richard Gere and Julia Robert’s enduring onscreen chemistry, but because the climate change movement, is seemingly quite literally, running away from us.

 

The pledges of the Paris Agreement are not going to be able to keep a lid on the many devastating and endless complexities our strained ecosystem will have to brave and to make matters infinitely worse, we are now being groomed to face the harsh reality that they won’t be met.

[1] It’s worth pointing out that the comparison of recent temperatures to the paleoclimate isn’t exact, as it matches modern record-keeping to proxies taken from ancient layers of glacier ice, ocean sediments and rock.

 

 

 

 

 

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