How bad is Climate Change?

I remember doing my GCSEs and writing pat answers about the greenhouse effect. Little did I know that in my first year out of education I would see leading international climate lawyer Farhana Yamin, one of the authors of the October IPCC report, speaking twice in one week. She was speaking both at a Parliamentary event celebrating a decade of the Climate Change act, and at the Extinction Rebellion shut-down of five London bridges: a worrying convergence of insider establishment politics and outsider NVDA grassroots movements.

I saw Yamin again not too long ago, at the February launch of the IPPR report on Environmental Breakdown. On one of the panels she emotionally described the fear that her work representing the Small Island States at the UN Climate Change conferences had not been enough, and that her time working had gone to waste.

Another panelist turned to her, his voice full with emotion as he said,

No time is wasted.”

I grew up with a large amount of ‘institutional trust’, believing the world was a safer, better place than ever before, and never doubting I would be leaving it better again for the next generation.

That trust has unravelled as I contemplate a situation grave enough to make leading climate lawyers, scientists and journalists break down in tears in professional settings, grave enough to make them join movements like Extinction Rebellion which are clear about their law-breaking intent.

Grave enough for former Archbishop Rowan Williams and actress Emma Thompson to make video statements supporting Extinction Rebellion.

Proxy measurements of carbon dioxide from ice cores (NOAA @ NASA Climate Change)

The IPPR report names this the ‘age of environmental breakdown‘. They claim global natural systems are undergoing destabilisation at an unprecedented scale:

  • The 20 warmest years since records began in 1850 have been in the past 22 years.
  • Vertebrate populations have fallen by a 60% average since the 1970s.
  • > 75% of the Earth’s land is substantially degraded.
  • Since 1950, the number of floods across the world has increased x15, extreme temperature events x20 times, and wildfires x7.
  • Extinction rates have increased to between x100–1,000 the ‘background rate’ of extinction.
  • Topsoil is now being lost x10-40 times faster than it is being replenished by natural processes, and, since the mid-20th century, 30% of the world’s arable land has become unproductive due to erosion; 95% of the Earth’s land areas could become degraded by 2050.

At the launch, Professor Chris Rapley outlined the process of fossil fuel extraction which is behind these outcomes:

“when you 1) extract things which when they 2) accumulate are damaging, you should 3) control the extraction because they will 4) leak”

We have so far failed to control the extraction of fossil fuels and the release of carbon dioxide. According to current estimates, unmitigated greenhouse emissions are “likely” to lead to global temperature increases of 2.6ºC – 4.8ºC by 2100 (See table 2.2 in the IPCC report).

If this happens there will likely be significant humanitarian harms, including more severe weather, food crises, and the spread of infectious diseases. These effects will disproportionately affect the world’s worst off – despite the poorest half of the global population being responsible for only 10% of emissions (IPPR report).

Climate change is a “threat multiplier”. It will amplify and exacerbate social and economic disruption such as migration, conflict and inequality.

There is, to a large extent, political and scientific consensus that we should limit warming to 1.5 degrees. But we are only 0.5 degrees away from 1.5ºC and global carbon dioxide emissions – far from falling – continue to rise.

The difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees is, by itself, significant (definitely click this link for the loveliest infographics). But, as the graph below shows, we have about a 10% chance of global average temperatures increasing by 6 degrees Celsius.

If the difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees is the difference between a world with or without coral reefs, arctic ice and several hundred million more people subject to poverty – then the outcomes of 6 degrees warming (especially in a context of non-linear change) aren’t ones I’d like to think about.

Climate Shock (Wagner and Weitzman, Princeton 2015)

Where does this leave us?

There have recently been discussions about people experiencing ‘eco-anxiety’ and climate trauma (my friend Jacob has written brilliantly about his own experience thinking about climate change). A lot of climate movements I am part of have been discussing what it means to ‘tell the truth’ and whether they should talk about the current situation as a ‘crisis’ when this is likely to materially effect people’s well-being.

Recently I have noticed the language being used in relation to the climate begin to intensify. Greta Thunberg, the 16 year-old activist famed for starting the youth climate strikes, made a speech at the WEF in Jan where she said, “I want you to panic.”

I don’t want you to panic.

I do want you to think about the situation, to take it seriously and to sit with it, but I don’t want you to feel scared. I want you to think about how brilliant and wonderful and valuable life is, in all its forms. I want you to be grateful for the earth and to think it is worth working together with others to make it a safe place for our children.

I want to work together with you for a world which is alive and thriving.

No other generation has the chance to get it right like we do.


“No time is wasted.”

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