New research shows it could be “game over” in mankind’s battle with climate change

What a rollercoaster year 2016 has been – albeit one of those really shonky-looking seaside ones that look like they could fall apart any minute. Just seven days ago, we were celebrating the Paris Climate Agreement coming into force, and today we’re coming to terms with the fact that the second-greatest polluter on the planet has elected a man who has pledged to undo it all.

I’ll come back to what Trump’s election means for the Paris climate treaty in a moment, but I have to interrupt this depressing news story for another depressing news story: we may have been underestimating just how quickly the world will heat up all along.

In a paper published in Science Advances, scientists are now arguing it’s possible we’ll see a rise of up to 7.36˚C within a lifetime. The previous best estimate of what happens if we continue to burn fossil fuels like there’s literally no tomorrow was a temperature rise of somewhere between 2.6 and 4.8 degrees above pre-industrial levels by 2100. The reason for the sudden adjustment? The scientists now believe that the climate is more sensitive to greenhouse gases when the temperature is higher.

Professor Michael Mann, professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University, told The Independent that not only does the paper seem “sound and the conclusions quite defensible,” but that it could spell “game over for the climate”.

“By ‘game over for the climate’, I mean game over for stabilising warming below dangerous (ie greater than 2˚C) levels,” he wrote. “If Trump makes good on his promises, and the US pulls out of the Paris treaty, it is difficult to see a path forward to keeping warming below those levels.”trump_on_climate_change

Which neatly brings us back to the Paris climate treaty. What happens with that? Well, the good news is that it has already gone into force. It’s legally binding and can’t be changed. What Trump can do is pull the USA out of the deal, which would be disastrous as the world’s second-largest polluter, but not necessarily terminal for the deal. It doesn’t necessarily follow that every other signatory will also withdraw, although it would certainly leave them tempted, for fairly obvious reasons: the US’s 2014 carbon emissions were only a little higher than the whole of the EU and India combined.

While campaigning for the presidency, Trump said, “I will be looking at that very, very seriously, and at a minimum I will be renegotiating those agreements, at a minimum. And at a maximum I may do something else.”

But despite electing Trump on Tuesday, American citizens are increasingly worried about the effects of climate change – 64% described themselves as “worried” in a poll earlier this year – and it’s possible that Trump will flip-flop on his promise (he has contradicted himself a lot over the past decade).

If even the Marshall Islands’ president Hilda Heine can strike an optimistic tone about the future, given the perilous state of her nation, then it can’t be so bad, right? Here’s what she had to say at the COP22 summit in Morocco: “I expect [Trump] will realise that climate change is a threat to his people and to whole countries which share seas with the US including my own. The Paris Agreement on climate change became law so quickly because there is a significant national interest for each country in pursuing aggressive climate action and that fact has not changed because of the US election.”

Room for a tiny bit of hope then? Maybe.

Then again, maybe not.

You can see what impact a 3˚C rise would have on our sea levels here. If you live on the coast, you may want to consider moving house.

Image by Jon Feinstein, used under Creative Commons.

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