Two degrees too many: is Earth edging towards evisceration?

The prospect of a two degree temperature increase might not have you quaking in your boots. Hazy city days in the late teens pushed up into the early twenties, no big deal. But the warming of Earth by two degrees is often considered a seminal event – a ‘tipping point’ (ironic, given the dissolution of ice caps) – to be avoided at all costs if we want to preserve our planet.

Two degrees too many: is Earth edging towards evisceration?

Alas, that’s looking increasingly unlikely, according to a new study by the University of Washington published in Nature Climate Change. Researchers have shown that there remains a slim 5% chance that Earth’s temperature will increase by two degrees or less. To really hammer that home, imagine you’d been given a 5% chance of survival. You’d start getting your affairs in order. You’d feel consigned to your fate.

These odds diminish further when we consider the targets set by the 2016 Paris Agreement, no thanks, as ever, to Donald Trump. Furore surrounding the American president’s withdrawal from the agreement is not unwarranted, with the news that there’s a 1% chance that its target – consigning global warming to under 1.5 degrees in the next century – being met.

And 1.5 degrees was no arbitrary threshold: “Countries argued for the 1.5 C target because of the severe impacts on their livelihoods that would result from exceeding that threshold. Indeed, damages from heat extremes, drought, extreme weather and sea level rise will be much more severe if 2 C or higher temperature rise if allowed,” says Dargan Frierson, co-author of the study and associate professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington.

Unfortunately for us, the University of Washington’s gloomy forecast has its roots in sound statistical methodology. The team, lead by sociology and statistics professor Adrian Rafferty, looked at world population, gross domestic product per person, and the amount of carbon emitted for each dollar of economic activity (carbon intensity). Using international data from the past 50 years, statistical projections showed a 90% chance that global warming this century would be in the arena of 2.0 to 4.9% celsius.

The knock-on effects from this could be extraordinary – and fatal – suggested another study in Nature Climate Change. Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill estimated that, if left unaddressed, the debilitating impact of climate change on the global air pollution could account for 60,000 deaths in 2030. A statistic, they suggested, that could rise to a staggering 260,000 in 2100.

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Climate change is often associated with impending dangers such as heat stress, severe storms, flooding, inhibited access to clean water and food, and the spread of infectious diseases. But the trauma it inflicts doesn’t stop there; higher temperatures catalyse the chemical reactions that cause air pollutants. As research leader Jason West put it, “As climate change effects air pollutant concentrations, it can have a significant impact on health worldwide, adding to the millions of people who die from air pollution each year.”

And whilst it may feel like we’re hurtling towards obliteration, that’s not the quite the case. Vigilance should be the order of the day, as we aim to ameliorate energy efficiency and minimise carbon emissions. For this, we require world leaders and figureheads to commit to a progressive change of tack, something that Donald Trump has proved wildly inept at doing. It is “unlikely” that the target of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees will be met, concedes Rafferty. There are, however, other goals proffered by the Paris Agreement that are “ambitious and realistic”.

You know the drill. Walk to work. Reuse and recycle. Turn off your lights. Adopt and espouse renewable energy where possible. Maybe try “flexitarianism” – cut back on the beef and the dairy. The options are out there, and they’re plentiful. The point of no return has not been crossed just yet. Let’s endeavour to keep it that way.

Header image: Mark McNestry; Body image: Marco Verch (used under Creative Commons)

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