The climate emergency is in the public eye like never before. The UN’s climate summit has just ended, the International Panel on Climate Change has published the third in a series of special reports, Greta Thunberg is in the headlines and on the airwaves, while Extinction Rebellion ramp up their campaign internationally.
What is the latest impact of climate change?
Climate change is becoming a topic that’s difficult to escape, metaphorically or literally.
In Iceland and Switzerland memorial services have been held marking the death of once-magnificent glaciers.
In Italy, roads have been closed and huts evacuated by the authorities over fears a quarter-million cubic metre chunk of glacier could fall from Mont Blanc at any moment.
Summer temperatures in the UK, Europe and around the northern hemisphere broke records again and wildfires blazed out of control across the Amazon, Arctic and Africa.
Meanwhile, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released its third special report in a series intended to brief world leaders.
One hundred and four experts examined 7,000 scientific publications to produce an analysis of the state of our oceans and frozen regions.
More on that report below, but first some history.
An environmental victory to remember
In 1986 the US Environmental Protection Agency warned that 40 million Americans could develop skin cancer within eight decades because of the hole in the ozone layer.
That projection assumed that production of ozone-damaging chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs would continue to increase. If the hole in the ozone layer had been allowed to grow it could have lead to a massive increase in cases of cancers and blindness as well as significant crop losses.
Fortunately for those of us alive today enormous public pressure on politicians and manufacturers forced them to take the threat seriously and the Montreal Protocol was agreed in 1987. The agreement means use of damaging CFCs will end by 2030.
The EPA reported in 2015 that the Montreal agreement would prevent 280 million cases of skin cancer and more than 45 million cases of cataracts in the United States alone in the next several decades. The ozone hole has at last started to shrink and should recover fully by about 2070.
What does the latest IPCC report tell us?
So back to the present, and the new IPCC report which warns that the need for “ambitious and coordinated action” on climate change is urgent.
We have been aware of the effect of greenhouse gases on the climate since the 1950s and a scientific consensus was reached in the 1990s, yet our response to it has been lethargic compared to our handling of the CFC threat.
The report focuses on the deterioration of our oceans and our glaciers, tundras, mountain ranges and polar ice caps. It says the 1.4 billion people who directly depend on these resources for food, water and employment face “profound consequences”.
Hoesung Lee, Chair of the IPCC, said that for many people “the open sea, the Arctic, the Antarctic and the high mountains may seem far away.”
“But we depend on them and are influenced by them directly and indirectly in many ways – for weather and climate, for food and water, for energy, trade, transport, recreation and tourism, for health and wellbeing, for culture and identity,” he said.
Smaller glaciers are expected to shrink by over 80% within the next eight decades if emissions are not reduced.
This year a study by the World Glacier Monitoring Service study discovered that our glaciers are melting 18% more rapidly than previously thought and five times faster than in the 1960s.
Disappearing glaciers and melting mountain snows pose threats to people living around them and those living in the lands below. Dwindling supplies of drinking water, landslides, avalanches and floods are likely to become increasing dangers.
Farming, tourism, winter sports and hydro-power projects are all set for significant losses from the ice melt.
The melting is accelerating and adding more water to our already-rising sea level, currently increasing twice as fast as it did in the 20th Century and could rise by between 60 and 110cm more without a slow down in emissions.
The oceans are also rising because they have absorbed 90% of the excess heat from climate change, without action that absorption will increase dramatically.
If heating continues once-in-a-century floods could happen every year within a couple of decades.
“In recent decades the rate of sea level rise has accelerated, due to growing water inputs from ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, in addition to the contribution of meltwater from glaciers and - three - the expansion of warmer sea waters,”
The warming is not the only problem for our seas. Since the 1980s, the oceans have soaked up 20 to 30% of our carbon dioxide emissions, changing their chemistry to make it more acidic and more toxic to life, threatening many communities with food insecurity.
Arctic sea ice cover is of course still shrinking and thinning, negatively affecting homes and livelihoods and there are already plans to relocate entire communities.
The report highlights a serious threat lying in wait in the permafrost. This frozen ground is thawing and widespread thaw of around 70% near-surface permafrost is predicted. In its frozen state permafrost locks up twice as much carbon as the atmosphere holds, meaning the level of atmospheric greenhouse gases could skyrocket when it thaws.
How do we cope with this?
So, that’s all rather depressing of course. However, the report isn’t entirely pessimistic. The consequences mentioned above can all be mitigated if we take action now. Mitigated, but not eliminated entirely and it’s not going to be easy.
The IPCC details what options we have to deal with changes that “can no longer be avoided”.
“We will only be able to keep global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels if we effect unprecedented transitions in all aspects of society, including energy, land and ecosystems, urban and infrastructure as well as industry,” said Debra Roberts, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II.
“The ambitious climate policies and emissions reductions required to deliver the Paris Agreement will also protect the ocean and cryosphere – and ultimately sustain all life on Earth.”
Substantially cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions, for example by switching to renewable energy, managing our ecosystems more responsibly, along with using our natural resources more sustainably are all part of the package of recommendations.
We’re undoubtedly facing more turbulent times, but we definitely have been forewarned. Learning about climate change and discussing it is an essential first step. Remember how we stopped the CFC threat to the ozone layer and take heart.
“If we reduce emissions sharply, consequences for people and their livelihoods will still be challenging, but potentially more manageable for those who are most vulnerable,”