4 min read
Climate Change: The Road Ahead

Selina Gusenbauer

Earth is facing a catastrophic climate emergency, according to 14,000 scientists from 153 countries. Six years ago, most nations of the world agreed in Paris to collaborate on fighting the most urgent threat to our way of life and take action to limit the Earth’s average global temperature to 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels. Today, as North America is still reeling from an unprecedented Heat wave, China experiences catastrophic floods, Europe suffers from both floods as major rivers burst from unexpected rain and drought-facilitated wildfires from Portugal to Turkey; Pakistan declares some populated regions to become uninhabitable for humans within the next 5 years and one solemn truth is undeniable: We have entered the age when the catastrophic scenarios of past predictive models are becoming reality around the globe. And yet the debate remains politicized and tangible action timid. 

Climate change is a frequently used, but often misunderstood, term. Climate change through global warming, essentially refers to the rapid rise in global temperature and its effects on the environment and the future habitability of the planet. According to NASA, surface temperature has risen about 1.18 Celsius since the late 19th century, and 2020 and 2016 were tied for the warmest years on record. The vast majority of scientists believe that the dramatic rate of global warming is caused by the increase in the concentration of CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) in the atmosphere. CO2 is emitted naturally, and the earth has the ability to absorb a lot of it through forests (Plants convert CO2 back into Oxygen, Oceans capture CO2, etc). CO2 is only one of multiple greenhouse gases (another one is Methane), all of which contribute to global warming in different ways. CO2 is the most talked about of the greenhouse gases because it stays around the longest and since we have begun emitting dramatically more CO2 since the industrial revolution, it has built up in the atmosphere. CO2 absorbs energy at a variety of wavelengths between 2,000 and 15,000 nanometers — a range that overlaps with that of infrared energy. As CO2 soaks up this infrared energy, it vibrates and re-emits the infrared energy back in all directions. About half of that energy goes out into space, and about half of it returns to Earth as heat, contributing to the ‘greenhouse effect.’ 

The idea of climate change through a “greenhouse effect” was first theorized in 1824. The scientific community broadly agreed on the theory of man-made climate change in the 1970s, but was publicly eclipsed by the individualization of responsibility pushed by the industries most responsible for it. During this time, the famous “Sad Native” commericial pushed individual responsibility onto citizens, while corporations rid themselves of theirs.

As long as people have been talking and thinking about modern man-made climate change, there have been people obfuscating the discussion by downplaying the human role (“the climate had always changed”) or denying that the earth was warming at all: As recently as 2015, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma brought a snowball into the US Senate declaring “…since we keep hearing that 2014 was the warmest year on record, well you know what this is? A snowball, from right outside here, so it is very cold out, very unseasonable”. Yet every year since, the dramatic effects of climate change severely impacts more countries around the world. 

We sometimes hear people say that, “the climate has always changed”, that “this is part of Nature” and that “we should not worry”. Indeed, the climate goes through natural changes; however, this has been a source of worry for the humans that went through it. The Little Ice Age of 17th century Europe, exemplified in the graph above, shows how the slight change (within 1 degree of difference) of the climate managed to have a great effect on the stability of social orders. Within this little ice age, feudal agricultural practices that sustained the Middle Ages collapsed, social tensions rose, and monarchs (specifically the French) lost their heads. Today we face triple the temperature variation within a tenth of the time. That is why most intelligence agencies warn of the multiple and compounding threats that lay on the road ahead. The instability of the climate as it warms and falls out of the comfortable range humans have been thriving in, opens a pandora’s box of compounding issues: a rise in atmospheric temperature will lead to both droughts in already dry areas but heavy rains and flooding in already water rich regions impacting long and short-term habitability for humans. A rise in the temperature of the oceans will both flood coastal areas and threatening oceanic ecosystems and humans benefiting from it, such as phenomena like the ocean snot in Turkey or toxic bacteria overgrowth in US beaches

No part of life on this planet will be unaffected by these changes. The instability to the environment and humans’ ability to make a living in it, will trigger movement: Movement away from coastlines, affecting directly the 40% of the world population that live within 100km (62 miles) of a coastal line. Movement away from now arable land as it dries or becomes entirely inhospitable to humans. We have already lost 25% of arable land globally now. Crucially these losses have disproportionately affected regions reliant on subsistence agriculture. 

The evidence continuously provided by the scientific community in intangible data may have been clear on paper but increasingly, it has become an experience for the general public as well. Curiously, outlets once denying the existence of climate change, now moved on to distracting from its urgency by debating how “alarmist” the rhetoric is. The pundits who used to deny climate change now deny that the climate catastrophe has begun, because there still is money in stalling action, action that could cause short term losses to wealthy industries. These industries used to deny that their emissions caused the warming and now hide behind greenwashing to stall meaningful changes even further. 

Meanwhile 2021, the warmest year on record so far, saw the US Government declare, for the first time, a water shortage. Across the globe in Iran, also going through a severe drought and water shortages exacerbated by poor management, protests have turned violent. Wildfires have ravaged Canada, California, Oregon, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey and Siberia. Simultaneously, 20 different countries in Northern Europe, Asia and Africa saw unprecedented flooding events and landslides. _

On the road ahead, the well governed countries will differ from the poorly managed ones only in their response, but not in the threats they face. The climate emergency is global and the time for timid steps has elapsed. Humanity's willingness to take action and pressure our governments to realize our shared global long-term interest to maintain the planet for ourselves and generations to come as a livable place, will determine how we will cope in the new reality. The environmental decisions of today will define nothing less than the fate of the world.

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