We are optimists at TheClimateEconomy.com, but we deal with reality and facts. We look at the facts, sometimes unpleasant, right in the face to understand what we need to do. This post is a reality blast in the face. It’s alarming, but there’s hope.
If we don’t tackle the challenge of climate change now, future generations are left with a chaotic, unpredictable planet because of rising temperatures. They will not be privy to the wonderful stability that humanity has experienced over many hundreds of years in terms of temperature and climate, which enabled mankind to grow and prosper to amazing heights.
We know that burning of fossil fuels for energy is the primary cause of climate change. Put simply, burning of fossil fuels unnaturally increases the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which increases global temperatures in unnatural ways, causing stress to the natural balance of the planet. We are already able to observe many changes that are happening across the planet, including rising global temperatures both in the air and the oceans, rising sea levels, extreme weather events and ocean acidification, among many other things. Read more here (NASA), here (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and here (US Global Change Research Program), or ask firstname.lastname@example.org a question. Now, let’s move on; we have choices to make.
Let’s take a very simplified look at possible future scenarios and where they’ll take us.
#1: The Fossil Fuel Scenario
Here’s the “Fossil Fuel Scenario,” the future of energy projected* by the US Energy Information Administration:, where more than 80% of energy needs are supplied by fossil fuels, and renewables at about 15-18% in 2050:
Notice (in the right hand graph) how total CO2 emissions increase from 2017-2050 – about 0.6% annually – which means that the total concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere continue to increase dramatically.
*This is EIA’s “reference” scenario, a set of projections (not predictions) based on certain assumptions in technology, economy, demographics, policy, and other measures. Previous years’ projections look similar, as do many market forecasts from fossil fuel companies.
#2: The “We Stay Alive” Scenario
An annual carbon budget has been calculated to help people understand how much we can emit every year and still stay below 1.5-2 degrees Celcius of warming. In the “We Stay Alive” scenario, we have to drastically cut CO2 emissions quickly, globally in order to stay in line with this budget. Here’s the Mission 2020 graph showing these numbers:
In this scenario, we need to get to 30% energy from renewables by 2020, among a number of other targets for building, transportation, etc. Clearly, we need to be decreasing emissions drastically every year, and eventually eliminating them, not increasing them in any way, shape or form.
According the the EIA projections (above), the US will be holding steady on emissions until 2050, not decreasing them. According to Carbon Brief, at current emission rates, we use up our carbon budget for 1.5C within 4 years, and 2C within 19 years. Well, so what?
What happens if we don’t hit the 1.5 degree Celsius target?
Here’s some information from a draft UN report on a 1.5C global warming limit:
The fingerprints of climate change are already visible on extreme weather events, sea level rise and related impacts on ecosystems and human society. Each notch of warming brings more disruption. At 1.5C, tropical reefs are at “high risk” of no longer being dominated by corals. The Arctic could become nearly ice-free in September. There will be “fundamental changes in ocean chemistry” that could take millennia to reverse.
The next half-degree ramps up the risk of flood, drought, water scarcity and intense tropical storms. There are knock-on effects: reduced crop yields, species extinction and transmission of infectious diseases like malaria. And these pressures multiply the threat of hunger, migration and conflict. An extra 10cm of sea level rise is predicted this century with 2C compared to 1.5C. It also raises the risk of Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets collapsing over the long term, dooming future generations to multi-metre sea level rise.
You can also view information about specific levels of temperature rise and the resulting consequences in the IPCC 5th Assessment Report:
- Surface temperature is projected to rise over the 21st century under all assessed emission scenarios. It is very likely that heat waves will occur more often and last longer, and that extreme precipitation events will become more intense and frequent in many regions. The ocean will continue to warm and acidify, and global mean sea level to rise.
- Climate change will amplify existing risks and create new risks for natural and human systems. Risks are unevenly distributed and are generally greater for disadvantaged people and communities in countries at all levels of development.
- Increasing magnitudes of warming increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people, species and ecosystems. Continued high emissions would lead to mostly negative impacts for biodiversity, ecosystem services and economic development and amplify risks for livelihoods and for food and human security.
- From a poverty perspective, climate change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security and prolong existing poverty traps and create new ones, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hotspots of hunger.
- Climate change is projected to increase displacement of people.
- Climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflict by amplifying well-documented drivers of these conflicts, such as poverty and economic shocks.
And then there are the “irreversables” and the “tipping points.” I’m sorry if this scares you, but it’s the future our kids and grandkids face (again, IPCC 5th):
- Many aspects of climate change and its associated impacts will continue for centuries, even if anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are stopped. The risks of abrupt or irreversible changes increase as the magnitude of the warming increases.
- Stabilization of global average surface temperature does not imply stabilization for all aspects of the climate system. Shifting biomes, re-equilibrating soil carbon, ice sheets, ocean temperatures and associated sea level rise all have their own intrinsic long timescales that will result in ongoing changes for hundreds to thousands of years after global surface temperature has been stabilized.
- Within the 21st century, magnitudes and rates of climate change associated with medium to high emission scenarios pose a high risk of abrupt and irreversible regional-scale change in the composition, structure and function of marine, terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, including wetlands, as well as warm water coral reefs.
- A reduction in permafrost extent is virtually certain with continued rise in global temperatures.
All of these are studies in themselves and at extreme tipping points are basically the game changers for humanity. As in: game over. That is, if we stick with the Fossil Fuel Scenario #1 above.
So what do we do?
Q: What do we have to do now to ensure the stability of the planet for future generations?
A: Take climate action. Many studies show that we can reach the goals in the Mission 2020 scenario, or similar to it – these will be discussed in other posts. it’s difficult, but not impossible, and we all have to work together. Get started now with the Climate Action’s Three Steps (Yep, it’s CATS.)
3. Use your voice and spread the word.
Tell a friend. Post a tweet. Tell friends on Facebook. Send an email. Important stuff.