As a child completely obsessed by all things weather related, I first came across the concept of ‘global warming’ while reading a book which contained a chapter entitled ‘Fire or Ice?’. At that time in the late 1970’s there was actually some uncertainty about which type of climate emergency we were heading for, as there was a view among some scientists that the planet may be heading towards a ‘mini ice age’ as temperatures had been falling from a peak reached in the 1940’s.
Since first reading that chapter all those years ago global temperatures have shown a steady rise – and this rise has also been accompanied by an alarming rise in CO2 levels.
On researching for this blog the incredible scale of the issue becomes apparent, one which presents difficulties when attempting to distill a huge amount of information succinctly into a bite size blog. However, this challenge is dwarfed by an impending sense of doom when the depth of what faces us – and the forces preventing a solution – become apparent. I certainly can’t cover all the bases, but will stick to giving a brief outline of the potential disaster ahead, how we ended up here and what is required to bring us back from the brink, or if this is not possible, how we can lessen the worst effects. We may not succeed , but we must try.
Since the first Climate Change conference in Geneva in 1979, there have been numerous summits including the ‘Rio’ summit of 1992 which in turn led to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement of 2015. However, while there has been much talk about what to do about CO2 levels, they continue to rise and apart from a rare decline in 2009 due to the global financial crisis, the rate of increase shows no sign of slowing down. Global emissions of CO2 surged 60% between 1990 and 2013.
CO2 levels were approximately 338 particles per million (ppm) in 1980. By 2019 this had risen to 415 ppm with the rate of increase rising. These levels of CO2 are the highest levels seen for over 14 million years and the rise has taken place in less than two hundred years, an infinitesimally small time in geological terms.
There are a number of challenges in dealing with the issue of rising CO2 levels:
- Unlike pollution from cars or heavy industry, CO2 is not visible and doesn’t have any immediate effects on our health or our daily lives. Humans are effective at dealing with immediate and tangible threats to our way of life or existence. However rising CO2 levels in our atmosphere are not perceived as a ‘clear and present danger’.
- Fossil fuel energy companies spend vast sums of money to influence politicians at the highest levels of government to play down the effects of CO2 emissions and to continue to receive tax breaks for fossil fuel extraction.
- Effective action against climate change will require significant changes to our way of life which will be unpopular among voters. Any political party pushing an effective CO2 emission reduction agenda risks losing political support, while parties that take a less hard-line approach are likely to prove more popular, but won’t deal effectively with the problem.
- By the time we see the significant changes resulting from climate change it will be too late to stop the catastrophic changes in upcoming years – we can’t adopt a wait and see approach.
- The global economic system is not sustainable in its present form if we want to effectively combat climate change.
The Paris agreement of 2015 aimed to pursue efforts to limit temperature increases to +2.0ºC above pre-industrial levels (with an aspiration to achieve a 1.5ºC limit) although the signatories could not reach agreement on when emissions have to peak.
Global temperatures, have already increased by around 1ºC, so these limits already seem extremely ambitious and likely to be exceeded. The question seems to now be how close we can keep temperature increase as close to 2ºC as possible.
However, before looking at what is possible let’s take a look at how a warming world potentially affects life on Earth at between 1º and 6ºC of warming.
+ 1º Centigrade
A warming of +1ºC does not mean that the globe warms up equally across its surface. As we already approach this level of warming we are finding significant variations in the level of rises, which is particularly pronounced in arctic areas such as Greenland, Alaska and Antarctica. This has resulted in the significant reduction of sea ice particularly in the summer months, as well as causing entire lakes to drain away into the ground as the permafrost underneath them thaws.
The reduction in sea ice creates the first tipping point: warmer temperatures melt the snow covered ice (which reflects more than 80% of the sun’s heat that falls upon it) and is then replaced by the darker open ocean (which absorbs up to 95% of the incoming solar radiation) warming the sea and making it more difficult for ice to re-form during the next winter. At current rates of ice melt we are heading for a summer ice free arctic between 2030 and 2050.
This warming of the arctic is likely to lead to significant changes in the weather patterns of the mid-latitude areas such as the USA, Europe and Japan. The circulation of the atmosphere is governed by the contrast in temperature between the equatorial and polar regions. Excessive warming in the polar areas will reduce this contrast which will in turn have an effect on the jet streams which circulate the globe and influence our weather systems such as the ‘low’ and ‘high’ pressure systems that we see on the TV weather.
Small temperature rises also affect coral reefs already affected by overfishing, sewage and agricultural run-off. The numbers of ‘bleaching’ events where the algae is expelled from the coral polyps is on the increase and the death of the coral occurs unless the waters cool again quickly. A warmer world at this level will present challenges, but will not exceed our ability to adapt.
+ 2º Centigrade
So how does increased CO2 and increased temperatures affect us in a +2ºC world? Around half of the carbon dioxide released every time we jump on a plane ends up being absorbed by the oceans. Ocean chemistry is complex and being slightly alkali allows many animals and plants to build calcium carbonate shells. However CO2 dissolves in water to form carbonic acid. This increased acidity means that by around 2050 large areas of ocean will become effectively toxic to organisms with calcium carbonate shells. Go above the levels of CO2 which would produce a +2ºC rise and most of the world’s oceans will eventually become too acidic to support calcareous marine life.
This will affect plankton, perhaps the most important plant resource on Earth, as an essential part of the food chain of numerous species from mackerel to humpbacked whales. Their calcium carbonate structure makes them especially vulnerable to ocean acidification, essentially dissolving them. Phytoplankton are crucial to the carbon cycle, removing billions of tons of carbon from circulation as their limestone shells rain down on the ocean floor. As the oceans turn more acidic there will be fewer plankton to remove the carbon in the oceans, increasing the problem even further. Warmer surface waters also stop the upwell of cooler nutrient rich waters that the phytoplankton need to grow. These two factors mean we are potentially altering the entire chemistry of the oceans, without any idea of the consequences.
A 2ºC rise will mean summers across Europe like those in 1976, 2003, 2006 and 2018, will become the norm rather than the exception, devastating crops, causing wildfires and increasing mortality among vulnerable people unable to cope with the excessive heat. This heat also stresses plants, causing them to emit carbon dioxide rather than absorb it, adding to the CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.
The Greenland ice cap contains enough water in its three kilometre thick bulk to raise global sea levels by around seven metres. Climatologists have put a figure on Greenland’s critical melt threshold at a regional warming of 2.7ºC. Due to polar amplification warming occurs at a far faster rate in polar latitudes and a global warming figure of 1.2ºC would result in the above regional threshold being crossed.
At this point we could potentially get another positive feedback loop due to ‘albedo-flip’ caused by wetter, darker ice absorbing more energy increasing melting rates. This could result in far greater sea level rises than the 26 to 82 cm by 2100 as predicted in 2013 by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This in itself is a higher rise than the same Panel’s projection, made just six years earlier in 2007 of an 18 to 59 cm rise.
+ 3º Centigrade
If governments meet their current pledges it is forecast that there will still be an average global warming of 2.7ºC by 2100. To go back to similar temperature levels we have to go back around three million years to a period of time called the Pliocene.
Analysis of sediments from this time, both in Antarctica and the Northern tip of Greenland, show shrub growth in the former and pines and conifers in the latter, hundreds of miles North of the current tree line. Analysis of fossilised leaves can identify the number of stomata which in turn indicate the levels of CO2 at the times the leaves were living. Fossilised leaves from the Pliocene period indicate concentrations of CO2 between 360 and 400 parts per million, a similar level to what we have reached today.
Estimates of global temperatures at that time place them at +3º C above today’s levels. A reminder that the current levels of CO2 are 415ppm and the rate is rising. Due to thermal inertia even if we stabilised CO2 concentrations immediately, the planet would continue to warm for centuries.
At the +3ºC level of temperature increase some very startling factors come into play such as the ‘carbon cycle feedback’. Warmer seas absorb less CO2 leaving more of it to accumulate in the atmosphere; warmer soils begin to emit stored carbon due to increased bacterial activity; the carbon cycle is reversed as vegetation starts releasing CO2 rather than absorbing it; the drying of peat in tropical rainforest areas such as Malaysia and the Amazon and resulting fires leads to extra CO2 entering the atmosphere. The Amazonia area contains half the world’s biodiversity and the Amazon river contains 20% of all the water discharged into the world’s oceans. Some models predict that the Amazon rainforest is doomed unless global warming levels are held at +2º C or below.
A +3ºC temperature rise will result in huge changes to the climate across the globe, with some areas being struck by super droughts and huge rivers such as the Indus being affected by the reduction in glacial run-off and snow melt. Climate change will affect crop yields, increasing in some areas, but with an overall reduction leading to food shortages. Population movements are likely to dwarf the current migration levels caused by wars or crop failures. These climate refugees are likely to spill into already densely populated areas and the current political pressures caused by migration will pale into insignificance in comparison.
+ 4 º Centigrade
Warming of +4ºC will have devastating effects across the globe and will put many of the World’s major cities such as Mumbai, New York and London in grave danger unless huge amounts of money are poured into developing new defences. Sea level rise will create refugees escaping from coastal areas. Our destruction of the rainforests will mean Earth’s natural defence mechanisms will have been severely weakened.
Global weather is likely to go increasingly haywire with temperature, drought and flooding extremes becoming commonplace. Temperatures in Europe will resemble those currently experienced in the Middle East. Drops in food production along with migration will put pressure on the political system struggling to cope with financial shocks caused by extreme weather events.
By this point one of the most dangerous feedback loops comes into play. Around 1,400 billion tons of carbon are estimated to be locked into the arctic permafrost. As this permafrost thaws, vast quantities of carbon and methane (an even more dangerous greenhouse gas) will be released. The rate of release and the effects of this release are not yet fully understood but there will be increased plant growth in these areas that may offset some of the resultant rise in CO2 levels.
However, by the time we have reached a 4ºC rise it is likely that the extra release of CO2 into the atmosphere may make a 5ºC rise more likely and this is where we reach the tipping point – and perhaps the most frightening feedback loop of all which is described in the next section.
+ 5º Centigrade
There is much disagreement among scientists about the potential effect of methane hydrates (an ice like combination of methane and water that forms under the intense pressure and cold of the deep sea) on global warming. However, geologists looking back 55 million years to the Paleocene period have found evidence of major deep sea extinction events through sediment analysis from core samples from this era. These samples contained ‘dead zones’ and scientists have also found evidence of huge submarine landslides occurring at this time.
Warming of the oceans may cause melting of these hydrates making them unstable and cause thousands of tons of methane to enter the atmosphere. Methane is 23 times more powerful than CO2 in terms of its global warming properties and could add to an unstoppable feedback of runaway global warming. This instability may lead to undersea landslides, which will have disastrous consequences for millions living in coastal areas as we have seen with recent tsunamis.
Records indicate that warming in the Paleocene period took place over approximately 10,000 years, giving plants and animals time to adapt to the change. As things stand this level of temperature change may take place in a hundred years, far too rapid for ecosystems to adapt both on land and at sea. This is likely to result in mass extinctions and as the habitable areas of the globe retreat to the poles, large scale developed human society would no longer be sustainable. Conflicts between migrants and those already present in these cooler areas are likely as the economic and social structures break down.
+ 6º Centigrade
A six degree rise in temperatures would increase the severity of all the previously mentioned outcomes and turn the oceans anoxic as they are stripped of oxygen. Failure of the ecosystem to adapt to the temperatures would create food shortages and as society collapses population reduction is almost inevitable.
All the previously mentioned tipping points, the collapse of the Amazonian ecosystem and resulting soil carbon release, could add to the thawing of the Siberian permafrost adding more carbon to the atmosphere and adding more warming, which in turn increases the possibility of the release of methane hydrates resulting in even more global warming. The rate of increase in CO2 levels caused by human activity has never before happened on Earth. We are in grave danger of knocking over the first in a long row of dominoes, with no possibility of recovery.
How have we ended up on the brink of disaster?
This is difficult to set out briefly in a blog which aims just to give a flavour of the issue, but the answers can be summarised as follows:
- Human nature reacts poorly to risks that don’t seem to pose an immediate threat, such as a war or a natural disaster.
- The globalisation of the economy and the resulting mass exports of produce across vast distances has fed the fossil fuel and CO2 emission boom.
- Deregulation of the corporate sector and deregulated capitalism. The ‘free market’ is incompatible with climate change mitigation. The current economic model demands expansion and increased consumption and the steps we must take are in direct conflict with the ‘grow or die’ ethos.
- The influence that the most polluting companies, both financial and political have over governments across the globe.
- The steps required to halt the slide to disaster are not exactly vote winners as they are either seen as restrictive on personal freedom or a barrier to the pursuit of profit. Therefore any political organisation that recognises the scale of the issue must temper their policies in this area to enable them to get elected to at least pursue some of the policies required – unfortunately all the evidence points to the reality that the time for a little tinkering around the edges has passed.
- Emerging economies whose CO2 output is increasing are reluctant to stifle their growth to cut emissions when established economies had no such disadvantage during their development.
How do we fix it?
- By promoting localism over globalism. In simple terms this means buying local rather than from across the globe and a return to the consumption of seasonal produce. One of the anomalies of the United Nations CO2 accounting system is that countries are only responsible for the pollution created within their own borders – and not the CO2 created by the manufacture and transportation of goods shipped for consumption in that country. Localism will also require a step change in how we structure the world economy and trade policy which in many cases prohibits favouring domestic over foreign production.
- By placing restrictions on air travel. Another of the anomalies of the accounting of CO2 emissions by each country as part of the climate change agreements is that only domestic air travel is recorded. International air travel emissions have no ‘home’ and therefore, although they are recorded, are not included in any emission targets. In the UK both the Green and Labour political parties are looking at a ‘frequent flyer’ tax where one trip per year will be a ‘freebie’ in terms of tax rates, but additional travel will be severely taxed.
- The ‘free market’ is unable to deal with the issue, therefore the dominance of corporations must be reduced and governments take the lead in a holistic approach to tackling climate change. The current ideology of ‘small state’ government will need to end.
- The era of disposable products must end and goods made, not only to be more energy efficient but also made to last.
- By eliminating the reliance on the car, including electric cars, as a primary means of travel (with the phasing out of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030) by providing cheap public transit for all and safe alternatives for cycling and walking.
- Replace into law the ‘zero carbon’ homes policy abandoned by the Conservative government in 2016.
- Tree planting needs to increase substantially to act as a ‘carbon sink’ for CO2 emissions. Currently the UK target for tree planting (20,000 hectares per year) is being missed by a wide margin every year.
- By promoting research and development of Carbon Capture & Storage as it is currently absent in the UK and is a necessity to meet ‘net zero emissions’ targets by 2050.
- By providing incentives for domestic green energy production such as solar power. These not only reduce the reliance on fossil fuels, but can also change cultural attitudes to power consumption as people are likely to become engaged in energy use when they are producing it on their own rooftops. All new buildings should have solar panels installed on available roofing and be retrofitted where possible.
- By adoption of ‘the polluter pays’ principle on the oil and gas companies which have for many years been the most profitable in the global economy. This could be in the form of a ‘carbon tax’ along with higher royalty rates on fossil fuel extraction.
- Renewable energy production co-operatives run by the communities that use them. This would encourage ‘buy in’ from local communities who directly benefit from them by selling their clean energy back to the grid. At this point I hold my hand up and admit I have been anti-onshore wind generation in the past, but localised benefits from local infrastructure would provide popular incentives to alter attitudes.
- By an end to ‘fracking’ as a means of extracting natural gas, which has been found to produce methane emissions which are 30% higher than those linked to natural gas. Further, methane is 34 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.
- We must stop extracting fossil fuels and end the significant subsidies to those who extract those fossil fuels.
Can we avoid disaster?
The list above presents many challenges, at an individual, political and corporate level. If we can’t take the simple steps of providing tax breaks for solar panel installation (the UK government are about to increase VAT on PV installations from 5% to 20%) and have recently cut grants for the purchase of electric vehicles from £4,500 to £3,500, then what chance have we got with the ‘big ticket’ items of net zero carbon emissions in the energy and transport sectors.
While the UK government should be commended for setting an ambitious net zero carbon target, they mean nothing unless backed up by positive actions to achieve it. As Lord Deben, the Chair of the Committee on Climate Change stated in the Foreword of his July 2019 report to Parliament “The need for action has rarely been clearer… now do it.”
After mulling over all the evidence gathered while researching for this blog it is very easy to reach the conclusion that we are beyond hope and there isn’t the political will to make the necessary changes. Further, on an individual level it can seem that efforts to reduce CO2 emissions are inconsequential in the great scheme of things and we are doomed. However, it is individual changes repeated across society and the political pressure applied by individuals teaming up to fight for change that will go a long way to achieving success or condemning us to failure and a terrifying future. The colossal scale of the challenge does not absolve us from personal responsibility.
We may not succeed, but surely we must try.
Sea Level Rises Data
Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide levels Data
Sources and further reading
I have drawn heavily on the detail contained in the following books: Naomi Klein ‘This Changes Everything’ and ‘Six Degrees’ by Mark Lynas. I recommend that you read both these books in full.
Not used for this blog, but interesting reads on this subject are: ‘The Water Will Come’ by Jeff Goodell and ‘How Bad Are Bananas’ by Mike Berners-Lee which gives estimates on the carbon footprint of just about everything!
The website for the UK based Committee on Climate Change is a very useful source of information:
Carbon Brief is another UK based website providing extensive information on the latest in the science and policy decisions concerning climate change: