The urgency of action

Anyone who is intellectually honest and who has taken the time to document himself knows that our civilization is galloping towards a wall. It is useless to beat around the bush, the effects of human activity on the environment are unequivocal and under everyone’s eyes. I came up with this article to give myself a general picture of both the phenomenon and the historical moment we are living. In the first part, I list a series of incontrovertible data that outline the current situation (and I warmly invite the sceptics to verify the sources). In the second part, I make a brief consideration about the peculiarity of the problem. Then, I report the forecasts of the most eminent body on the subject: the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC). Subsequently, I give space to some critics addressed to the IPCC, accused by a slice of the scientific community of being too conservative in its estimates. Finally, I conclude with some reference to working groups and initiatives to save what can be saved.


The situation today

With the year 2018 we have just experienced the four hottest years in history (from the start date of measurements), with as many as 17 of the 18 warmest years in the new millennium [1a] [1b]. Reason for which the Arctic continues to lose a volume of ice at the rate of about 13% per decade, following a rising trend (it is estimated that between 1979 and 2018 the ice lost has been between 35 and 65%) [2]. In the meanwhile, the seas have already risen by 80mm since 1993 [3] and we begin to see its impact on the total surface of emerged land (see Florida, or the 5 islands in the middle of the Pacific erased from the maps) [4];[5]. In addition to the uninhabitability of some coastal areas, climate change increases episodes of drought and floods. These extreme events impact the livelihood of entire countries, reason for which migrants caused by climate change are increasing, and the United Nations estimates they could reach up to one billion by 2050 [6]. Meanwhile, permafrost in Siberia and Alaska began to melt, releasing methane and probably triggering a chain mechanism that cannot be stopped [7]. As if this was not enough, pollution and economic overproduction are amplifying the effects of climate change, seriously damaging the planet’s biodiversity. In 2016, the WWF declared that we are in the middle of the sixth mass extinction in the history of our planet, with a loss of global wildlife topping to 58% just between 1970 and 2012 [8a]. This is validated by the United Nations’ Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which estimates a rate of species extinction already at least tens to hundreds of times higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years and likely to accelerate [8b]. Unfortunately, the list is still long: from the acidification of oceans, with the consequent annihilation of entire ecosystems (see coral reefs), to whales dying from plastic indigestion, fires increasingly frequent and extensive, stronger whirlwinds and hurricanes due to the greater energy present in the air, the melting of glaciers, more and more countries experiencing water scarcity, etc … [9];[10];[11].

WWF 2016 Living Planet Report. Intense colour indicates absolute water scarcity, the middle one indicates water scarcity and the green one water stress.

The response

The main problem in dealing with climate change is the discrepancy between its global nature and the political structure of human beings relying on multiple States. Furthermore, the first impacts of climate change have been localized, causing far greater damage in poorer countries. This has contributed to a general feeling that climate change was just another plague of the South of the world and that the West (the only possible leader of an international equity-based concertation) would not have suffered much from it. However, recently, the effects have started to become increasingly stronger and more frequent, helping a belated as much as indispensable global awareness. 

Prospects according to the IPCC

While the time available is relentlessly thinning, indifferent to the long delays necessary for international coordination, the planet’s temperature has already increased by one degree and the damage is starting to become irreversible. The IPCC’s predictions, laid down in its 2018 special report, tell us that even if we could keep the temperature increase within 1.5°C (best-case scenario) we would still see a further decline of coral reefs by 70-90%, an Arctic for the first time ice-free by 2100, a rise of seas level between 26 and 77 centimeters, a 9% decrease in wheat harvests, a lowering of about 1.5 million tonnes of fish caught (with a growing world population), a further increase in extreme weather events and a 9% decrease in fresh water just in the Mediterranean [11]. The increase of 1.5°C is estimated to take place between 2030 and 2050. To achieve this “optimal” scenario we should start from 2020 to cut global emissions so to place ourselves on the trend depicted in graph (b), which represents a 45% reduction of the CO2 levels emitted globally by 2030 (compared to those of 2010) and zero emissions by 2055 (gray line). However, the cumulative figure for greenhouse gas emissions will continue to increase for a few decades (c) and (d). This is because we have triggered natural mechanisms that cannot be turned off with a switch (if you are going at 200 mi/h and you start breaking you will still make several feet more from the point where you pulled the break).

IPCC Summary for policymakers 2018 Special Report, SPM.1

The criticism

It is terrifying to think that those measures needed to put the world on the trend shown in graph (b) have not yet been undertaken and nothing seems to indicate that they will be in the next months. In contrast, political leaders willing to free-ride on others’ commitments abound in rich countries (USA, Russia, UK, etc). Not to mention those in developing countries like Brasil where we recently assisted to a deforestation revival in the Amazon [12], or Poland, where political leaders have no intention of replacing coal as the country’s main energy source, or China, the incarnation of energy ambiguity with a government that declares waging war on pollution but at the same time (a bit out of necessity, a bit out of interest) finances coal power stations abroad and holds the majority share in the most polluting company in the world [13] [14].

Below you can look at a map elaborated by three international institutes that depicts the degree of efficiency of the combined climate-related policies by country.

Counries’ efforts to achieve the Paris agreement targets. Picture obtained from the collaboration of Climate Analytics, Ecofys and NewClimate Institute.

This political landscape is probably one of the factors that pushes more and more researchers to disagree with the IPCC forecasts, labelling them as too optimistic. The skeptical front is quite broad, I will here mention some of the most prominent figures: Peter Wadhams, one of the most famous glaciologists in the world, Jem Bendell, professor at Cumbria University (UK), Mayer Hillman, a scientist who dedicated his life to sustainable transport, Stuart Scott, founder and president of Transition University (USA), Guy McPherson, Professor Emeritus at the University of Arizona, James Hansen Former Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute. What is being reproached to the IPCC are basically three points: 1) underestimate the impact of methane released into the atmosphere as a result of the permafrost thrusting, 2) considering the effects of climate change as linear and not exponential and 3) putting in the equation geoengineering technologies to extract CO2 in a scale currently not available. Wadhamas, for example, predicts an ice-free September in the Arctic already in the imminent future and a rise of the seas between 1 and 2 meters before the end of the century [15]. Professor Bendell, after a sabbatical year dedicated to research, wrote a paper entitled “Deep Adaptation” (rejected by the scientific journal to which he submitted it due to its harsh language). In the paper, Bendell writes that it does no longer make sense to do research on sustainable development, field to which he dedicated his life, because the 1.5°C and also the 2°C targets will be extensively exceeded by the next twenty years and all efforts should now turn to understanding how to adapt to a scenario of civilization collapse.

Data obtained from Corinne Le Quéré et al. (to compare with graph (b) above)

Save what can still be saved

The fact that people who have dedicated their lives to studying and research are so alarmist surely gets one thinking. Of course, the most respected body on climate change is and remains the IPCC. However, it must be acknowledged that the panel only reports forecasts widely accepted by the scientific community at the international level, and therefore these are necessarily conservative. This article aims at encouraging the reader first of all to document himself, by now there is an amount of bibliography, articles and documentaries on the subject (in all languages) that anyone can have a sound idea of the phenomenon. Secondly, I hope this piece of writing has transmitted the urgency of a global response. In democracy this can only come from a strong popular pressure towards governments, for this it is necessary to participate in movements like that of Fridays for Future, or at least to support organizations deployed for environmental protection. Individual actions are certainly important, but investments in the fashion of the Marshall plan are needed if we want to put ourselves on the trend outlined in graph (b) of the IPCC (above). For those wishing to explore the type of investments required, I recommend taking a look at the Drawdawn project (there is also a Ted talk by Chad Frischmann translated into 19 languages). In order for this change of gear to take place, you need to vote more carefully, inform the sceptics and hit the streets. 

Giovanni Sgaravatti

References

[1a] https://www.climate.gov/news-features/videos/history-earths-surface-temperature-1880-2016 

[1b] https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global/201813#gtemp

[2] https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/arctic-sea-ice/ ; https://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/10.1175/JCLI-D-19-0008.1

[3] https://sealevel.nasa.gov/understanding-sea-level/key-indicators/global-mean-sea-level

[4] http://sealevel.climatecentral.org/news/floria-and-the-rising-sea

[5]https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/10/five-pacific-islands-lost-rising-seas-climate-change

[6] https://www.unhcr.org/49256c492.pdf

[7] http://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-018-0095-z

[8a] https://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/living-planet-report-2016

[8b] Report of the Plenary of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services on the work of its seventh session (May 2019)

[9]https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/08/explore-atlas-great-barrier-reef-coral-bleaching-map-climate-change/

[10] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/mar/30/plastic-debris-killing-sperm-whales

[11] https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/ 

[12] https://www.ilpost.it/2019/07/29/amazzonia-bolsonaro/

[13]https://www.npr.org/2019/04/29/716347646/why-is-china-placing-a-global-bet-on-coal?t=1565430393525 ; https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-03-20/top-china-fund-sdic-joins-global-shift-away-from-coal-investment

[14]https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jul/10/100-fossil-fuel-companies-investors-responsible-71-global-emissions-cdp-study-climate-change

[15] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/21/arctic-will-be-ice-free-in-summer-next-year

[Picture in Cover by Nick Cobbing, Greenpeace]

[Global Carbon emission picture from: https://blog.datawrapper.de/weekly-chart-greenhouse-gas-emissions-climate-crisis/]

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