Reading climate news over the last couple of weeks, you’d be forgiven for wondering what on Earth is going on with global efforts to slow and adapt to climate change. On the one hand, we’ve made progress on decarbonization to the point that the apocalyptic scenario of climate change destroying most life on Earth is off the table entirely. I know I’ve mentioned this a couple of times in various posts, but I think it’s worth repeating. This is good news, and a huge leap from where we were ten years ago, when 4-5 degrees of average global warming looked like where the planet is heading. We’re now on track for 2.5-3 degrees warming. Much higher than the ideal goal of limiting warming to a global average of 1.5 degrees, but we’re not staring total, global decimation in the face either.
Furthermore, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is accelerating the world’s transition to renewable energy. With Europe’s natural gas supply now in limbo and Russia having proven itself to be a global pariah and unreliable economic partner, the push for renewable energy has sped up considerably. In the short-term, some countries have been burning more coal to make up the energy shortfall, which is bad, but this seems to be a temporary measure as renewable capacity is being built up at a pace that was also unimaginable ten years ago. As the implementation of renewables speeds up, prices are likely to continue falling, as they have been at remarkable speed over the past twenty years.
So on the one hand, we are seeing very real progress towards a future where climate change is kept within a realm the human race can more-or-less adapt to. There is a caveat that lots of people will struggle as the planet warms, rain patterns change, and storms become stronger and more dangerous. Let’s not discount the very real struggles some people, particularly in poorer countries, will face and the help they will need to adapt. But on both an adaptation and a mitigation front, a great deal of progress has been made, and the momentum can continue with each COP, climate commitment, and technological innovation to further limit climate change.
On the other hand, the effects of climate change are currently causing strain on global food supplies and safety, with current storms and droughts are already stronger than what scientists expected for our current level of warming. Global cities are running out of water. Wildfires are reaching new levels of devastation and the Amazon, perhaps the most critical ecosystem on Earth, is in dire condition. There is no point sugar coating it, the situation we are currently facing is bad. And as warming increases over the next few decades (we’re at 1.2 degrees warming since the industrial revolution, out of our hypothetical total of 2.5 degrees total global warming) these problems will only intensify.
So, what is happening? Are things getting worse or better? What kind of climate future are we in for?
It looks like a paradox, but things are both improving and becoming more fragile regarding Earth’s climate. The long-term forecast in the span of centuries is vastly improving, while the short-term effects are causing new stress on local and global systems. The world has an enormous amount of adapting and decarbonizing to do, and we’re in for a difficult 30 years as our climate warms and we adjust to it, but it is clear that climate change will not be the final act of the human race. Which is what I thought it would be six or seven years ago when climate commitments and climate action was a fraction of the force it is today. Furthermore, commitments can be ratcheted up, new technologies can be implemented, and new legislation can be passed. It is certainly possible to improve further, so 2.5 degrees of global temperature rise is not where the story has to end.
But make no mistake, climate change will be difficult and will require global cooperation and collaboration that will dwarf the world’s response to COVID-19. But I doubt we are likely to see an era of calamity anything like the late Middle Ages that halved the population of Europe. I can say with confidence that humanity will endure climate change, although we have a challenging and difficult path ahead of us that will require an enormous amount of coordination, talent, and drive.
One quick thing about global temperature rise, 1.5 degrees or 2.5, or what have you. While that may not sound like much difference, that is a global average and does not really capture how much change will occur. Warming is not uniform across the planet, and polar regions can still see four or five degrees warming in a low-warming scenario while more equatorial locations could see much less overall change. The problem with global temperature averages is they hide an enormous array of variables across an entire planet of vastly different climates. The difference between 1.5, 2, and 2.5 degrees is vast. Not just in impacts on humans, but on plant and animal life across every continent on the planet. So if you’re new to understanding future warming, know that .5 of a degree means far, far more than you might think. As small as the numbers sound, 0.5 of something can matter. Small numbers mean enormous difference when it comes to future climate change.
The utmost basics to take away, when it comes to future temperatures, are: the lower the number, the better. For everything.