Dangerous climate change has gone from forecasted future to lived experience in more and more countries. In recent weeks, devastating fires in southern Europe and floods in northern Europe have added to a growing list of extreme weather events on every inhabited continent. A global report of scientific experts has now confirmed what many people can see with their own eyes: the climate crisis is intensifying.
The phenomenon of climate change has long been intensely debated. In recent decades, as scientific consensus hardened, the debate has mainly been between interests, not experts. Climate change has at various times been dismissed as a distant burden for future generations, welcomed as doing more good than harm, spun as a threat only to poorer nations and remote islands, and outright denied by vested interests hell-bent on squeezing every last buck out of fossil fuels.
In fact, climate change is an immediate and worsening problem that leaves no part of the earth untouched.
The report released last week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) lays out this reality. The IPCC brings together experts to provide regular assessments to the world’s governments on the state of climate change. Working Group I, which produced last week’s report, covers the physical science of climate change. Other working groups, responsible for climate adaptation and mitigation, will be issuing their own reports next year.
Working Group I reports that global surface temperature is already over 1°C higher than it was in the 1850-1900 period, while temperatures during 2011-2020 “exceed those of the most recent multi-century warm period, around 6500 years ago.”
The concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is “higher than at any time in at least 2 million years.” Arctic ice coverage is declining, glaciers are retreating, and sea level rise is accelerating.
What needs to be understood is that these changes not only threaten humanity’s collective future; they are already contributing to catastrophic outcomes. The IPCC reports strengthened evidence that “human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe.”
More specifically: it is “virtually certain that hot extremes (including heatwaves) have become more frequent and more intense across most land regions since the 1950s”; “frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation events have increased since the 1950s over most land area” where there is enough data; and “human influence has likely increased the chance of compound extreme events”, such as “concurrent heatwaves and droughts” and “fire weather in some regions of all inhabited continents.”
Unfortunately, the concurrence of heatwave and drought has fuelled the hellish fires which have struck Mediterranean and Balkan countries in recent weeks. The tragic scenes from Greece, Cyprus and neighbouring countries, and milestones like the record 49°C temperature registered in Sicily, feed concerns that these wildfires signify a ‘new normal’ of extremes.
Information released by the IPCC on specific regions underlines the seriousness of the challenge. In Europe, increases in the “frequency and intensity of hot extremes” are projected. In the Mediterranean, “aridity and fire weather conditions” are projected to increase if global warming hits 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Flooding in northern, western and central Europe is projected to further increase with global warming of 1.5°C.
In Australia, the land temperature increase has reached 1.4°C and “extreme fire weather days” have become more frequent, with further increases projected in the “intensity, frequency and duration of fire weather events.”
To be clear, climate change is not an alibi for the faults of specific governments in preventing or responding to disasters. Rather, it is a threat multiplier that policymakers would be foolish to ignore. This means that in a world not short of crisis and tragedy, the climate emergency demands urgent attention.
The IPCCC report may look like yet more bad news in 2021, but that’s not all there is to it. In a very different context, the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy once warned against “the danger of futility”. Instead of provoking despair, the IPCC findings should galvanise action, because they show that there is much we can still do to avoid the worst.
Under the low or very low emissions scenarios mapped out by Working Group I, CO2 emissions are reduced to net-zero “around or after 2050.” In the most ambitious scenario, global warming of 2°C is ‘extremely unlikely to be exceeded’ and there would probably only be a ‘temporary overshoot’ of the 1.5°C limit. The extreme consequences of the high emissions scenarios would be avoided, although some changes are already unavoidable (e.g., “sea level is committed to rise for centuries to millennia”).
The consequences of the different emissions pathways can be illustrated with an example from the IPCC. With the present global warming of just over 1°C, an extreme hot temperature event that used to occur once every 50 years is now likely to occur 4.8 times in 50 years. With 1.5°C of warming, the event is likely to occur ‘only’ 8.6 times, but at 2°C the figure is 13.9 times and at 4°C it becomes 39.2 times.
The IPCC affirms the ‘near-linear relationship between cumulative anthropogenic CO2 emissions and the global warming they cause’. ‘Achieving global net zero’ is the urgent challenge we face.
The European Union has not only committed to net-zero emissions by 2050. It has introduced legal frameworks to achieve both this target and the mid-term goal of at least 55% emissions reductions by 2030, compared to 1990. Together with other Europeans, Greeks and Cypriots can be proud that the EU is taking the initiative to become the world’s first climate-neutral continent. There will also be tremendous economic opportunities created by a green and digital recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the EU only accounts for 8% of global emissions. There is a clear need for all countries, and particularly all major economies, to adopt and implement climate targets consistent with achieving global net-zero by 2050. Yet again, the IPCC scientists have challenged the world’s governments to rise to the occasion. The time for a sufficient collective response is diminishing. Technology, taxes and much else will be required to tackle the climate crisis.
Dr Stephen Minas is an associate professor at Peking University School of Transnational Law and chair of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change UNFCC Technology Executive Committee. This article is written in a personal capacity.