The unprecedented weather events happening across the planet lead to two conclusions. First, with temperatures having risen by 1 degree Centigrade, the earth is only halfway to the goal of limiting climate change to 2C agreed by 197 nations at the 2015 Paris Accords. The damage to the atmosphere, even at this level, is unacceptable. Adding another mean degree is likely to mean far more destruction.
Second, it already may be too late. Reversing the environmental damage, with millions of hectares of forest fires pouring millions of tonnes of additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and with permafrost melt releasing more-damaging methane as polar regions lose snow and with it their ability to reflect heat back into the atmosphere, will tax the scientific world’s ability to find solutions. Once carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere, according to the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, it will stay there for 300 to 1,000 years. So far, NASA says, human activity has increased carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere by 45 percent since the Industrial Age began.
As the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration points out, “Given the size and tremendous heat capacity of the global oceans, it takes a massive amount of heat energy to raise Earth’s average yearly surface temperature even a small amount. The 2-degree F increase in global average surface temperature that has occurred since the pre-industrial era (1880-1900) might seem small, but it means a significant increase in accumulated heat. That extra heat is driving regional and seasonal temperature extremes, reducing snow cover and sea ice, intensifying heavy rainfall, and changing habitat ranges for plants and animals—expanding some and shrinking others.”
The flip side of that is that given the fact carbon dioxide remains trapped in the atmosphere, it takes an equal amount of effort to lower temperatures back down to acceptable levels to maintain environmental stability. With global population levels continuing to grow and expanding middle classes in China and other nations demanding more energy-consuming outcomes, reversing the crisis will take an as-yet-unknown effort.
The summer’s disastrous droughts, fires, floods, and heat waves have stunned climate scientists, who say this year’s trials are outside even their most extreme climate models. There is little use in reciting the litany of disasters that have been visited on the planet since the start of this year. The temperature reached 36.6C (98F) in Glacier National Park in Montana on the US-Canada border in June of this year, and it stayed in that range for many days.
Noted American scientist Diana Six says the results have been extraordinary “in the wrong kinds of ways. The snow has nearly vanished, glaciers are evaporating, rivers are hot, fish and algae are being “devastated,” birds look gaunt and emaciated from flying so far from their nests to find fish, bark beetle populations are exploding, lilies are shriveled, and the lupins won’t even open in this ecologically spectacular region. This is just for starters, in one corner of the world.
Six gloomily notes that she has gone “from being an ecologist to a coroner.” And while we don’t have a Diana Six in every region to give us that kind of breakdown, it is clear that climate change has spiraled out of control faster than most thought it would. The chart below shows the inexorable rise in temperature which began in 1960 and gets the world only halfway to where it would be expected to be in a best-case scenario by 2030.
Siberia is burning again, with fires tearing through 1.5 million hectares around the Yakutsk region in an unprecedented inferno (topping even last year’s massive fires), while a few thousand miles away in Tokyo, Olympic athletes are languishing in extreme heat. California is burning again, and people are dropping dead from the heatwave in Vancouver. In China, more than a year of rain fell on the city of Zhengzhou (pop. 10.55 million in a single day. The Bootleg fire in Oregon on the US west coast has burned more than 1,550 sq km, driven by unprecedented drought and pouring millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the sky.
“You have heard others say that the climate crisis is an existential threat to the future of human civilization,” former US Vice President Al Gore said in a Washington Post interview earlier this year. “Unfortunately, it really is. We have seen with our own eyes and felt emotionally the increasing impacts of the climate crisis. Mother Nature is the most persuasive advocate for solving this crisis, but we had the all-time record hurricane season in the US last year, four of the five largest fires in the history of California last year and fires throughout the West and in other countries, Australia, Brazil, the Arctic, and the list goes on.”
There is some indication of changing attitudes. The United States in effect lost 21 years of time to fight climate change starting in 2000 with the election of former President George W Bush, whose fossil fuel industry-friendly administration steadfastly resisted climate science. President Barack Obama was stymied by a Republican congress during his eight years in office and Donald Trump famously took the US of the 195-nation Paris pact in 2016. But the Biden administration, which took office on January 20, is now seeking to reverse those losses and has committed to rejoining the Paris agreement.
China, which more than a decade ago overtook the United States as the world’s single largest source of emissions—has said it will cut climate pollution faster than initially promised, aiming for carbon neutrality by 2060. In 2015, China surpassed Germany as the world’s largest producer of photovoltaic energy and became the first country to have over 100 GW of total installed photovoltaic capacity in 2017. It has built more hydroelectric dams – themselves a different kind of environmental disaster – installing 356 GW of capacity as long ago as 2015, with more being built. Unfortunately, it also remains the world’s biggest consumer of thermal coal and is likely to remain so.
But there is little appetite for the sort of radical political and corporate change that would be necessary to try and stave off the worst effects of climate change, with little progress by individual nations on meeting the goals set in the Paris Accords. According to the Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis consortium that tracks government climate action and measures it against the globally agreed Paris Agreement, only two nations – Morocco and The Gambia – are fully on track to meet the Paris goals. At least seven countries are critically insufficient, including Brazil, Argentina, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others.
The Bolsonaro government in Brazil has become the poster child for willfully mishandling climate change, with it appearing likely, based on past performance, that the administration will continue in the wrong direction, disregard the urgent need for climate action, and will not take up the opportunity to pursue a green economic recovery. Australia, whose coal exports to China are crucial to its economy, is ranked dead last of 57 major countries in combating climate change despite t5he hellish fires in 2002 that scorched the countryside.
The outcome will likely be some kind of cross between a demented and drunken stumble down a blind alley as the world tries to get lives back on track. It is a world that so far cannot be bothered with issues like climate change until we need to call emergency services to save ourselves. That time is now. But even if some live far away from the blazes—such as Manhattan—they still won’t be safe from climate change; thanks to the wildfires in California, New York City now has America’s worst air quality, with images reminiscent of Beijing during the dust storms that sweep over from Mongolia and mix with the massive amounts of air pollution belched out by local factories.