Perspectives | Environment

From climate change to climate crisis

By - 18.09.2023

The world is getting hotter — here’s what we can do.

Climate change is all too obvious. Few parts of the world have been left unaffected by direct or indirect consequences of the process.

Prolonged heat waves, record-breaking temperatures, longer and more severe droughts and floods, heavy storms, wildfires, sea level rise, environmental degradation… These are only some of the effects brought about by climate change. Devastating weather extremes now drive people out of their homes and with an increasing frequency are directly responsible for deaths.

These new extremes are becoming our everyday situation. It’s for good reason that this “new normal” is more and more being referred to not as climate change but as the climate crisis.

One reason comes down to simple physics, or the physical laws that define Earth’s climate to be more precise. Among other substances, our atmosphere contains the so-called greenhouse gasses. The greenhouse effect traps a portion of the energy received from the sun, keeping Earth’s surface warm. This temperature optimum is one of the basic conditions for life to thrive; without greenhouse gasses, our planet would be 30°C colder.

It’s known for a fact that the growing concentration of greenhouse gasses disrupts this balance, which in turn makes our planet heat up. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, vast amounts of coal, oil and natural gas have been burned to generate power. Fossil fuel combustion produced most of the energy we’ve historically needed — it served as a backbone for society’s constant and accelerated development.

Energy production aside, the burning of fossil fuels releases gasses and particles into Earth’s atmosphere, some of which reduce air quality. Others affect air quality minimally while influencing the greenhouse effect significantly. One of them is carbon dioxide (CO2) — Earth’s second most important greenhouse gas.

Compared to the pre-industrial era, the planet's surface temperature has gone up by 1 °C.

For the past century or so, particularly in the last few decades, our CO2 emissions have been so high that the concentration in the atmosphere has increased by more than 50%. This results in global warming. Compared to the pre-industrial era, the planet’s surface temperature has gone up by 1 °C.

Unlike other air-polluting gasses and particles emitted through fossil fuel burning, CO2 has another “snag” to it — once released into the atmosphere, it’s set to stay there almost forever.

Removing CO2 from the atmosphere by natural processes goes slowly. It begins with plants taking in the gas through photosynthesis and ends with their remains forming fossil fuels.

For example, conversion of dead trees into coal is a process that takes place over geological time scales measured in countless human lifetimes. Simply put, after underground carbon is released into the atmosphere by means of combustion, it’s going to stay there for a long while.

It bears repeating: If the concentration of CO2 in the air increases to the point of increasing global temperatures, Earth will remain hot for thousands of years, regardless of whether you cease to emit in the meantime. In short, there’s no turning back.

Another reason why our planet continues to warm up has to do with the way societies function — with how complex they are as systems where collective decision-making is influenced by things that go beyond the factual data we have in hand.

We’ve known for decades now that our planet keeps getting hotter as well as that global warming only heightens deterioration of the climate and increases the frequency of extreme weather events. We’ve also been very well aware that we should stop releasing CO2 into the air if the process is to be halted. However, despite all this, little effort has been made to effectively curb climate change.

Now we can only concede that everything science once predicted has become our reality.

It’s precisely for this reason that the current climate-related developments come as no surprise to climatologists and others who are informed on the matter. Now we can only concede that everything science once predicted has become our reality. In order to better understand decades of mind-boggling inaction, let’s go back to the beginning.

Even the early 19th-century scientists understood that our planet is warm thanks to the greenhouse effect. By the mid-19th century, it was determined which gasses contribute to this phenomenon, which gave rise to speculations that Earth would start to warm up if any one of them — such as CO2 — had a higher concentration in the atmosphere. This guesswork actually made perfect sense as fossil fuels had already come into use.

The first study to show how warm our planet can get if the airborne CO2 concentration doubles was published around the turn of the century. In the first half of the 20th century, scientists first managed to make an estimate of Earth’s average surface temperature, which pointed towards a warming trend. The first news story on the issue was published around the same time.

With the late 1960s and early 1970s came the first scientific papers that demonstrated beyond a doubt that further CO2 emissions would lead to temperature increases. It was expected that the consequences would become clearly visible in the following decades.

Suki Manabe, a Japanese meteorologist, was co-awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics for examining this chain of events. In one of his projects, he explains in detail how the process of global warming is to unfold.

By the early 1980s, climate scientists made public announcements that any further increases in temperature would unavoidably destabilize Earth’s climate system. They called for immediate action, given that finding viable energy alternatives to coal, oil and natural gas is an arduous task that might take decades to accomplish.

International consultations on how to tackle these challenges were launched in the late 1980s. Presided over by Angela Merkel, the first international conference where the world’s countries negotiated potential solutions to climate change was held in Berlin in 1995. In 1997, the first international climate treaty was concluded in Kyoto, but it became evident only a few years later that this arrangement would collapse.

A fresh deal that ushered in hope was supposed to be signed in Copenhagen in 2009. However, the Copenhagen Summit anticlimactically failed to produce a written agreement. It was only six years later that the world adopted a treaty that has remained in force to this day — the Paris Agreement. Every country in the world signed the agreement — only three national parliaments are yet to ratify it.

Later this year, we will have in writing the first rundown of how implementation of the Paris Agreement is proceeding. Unfortunately, even though the implementation report is still pending, we know that we’re far from meeting our goals. We also know that not all nations are ready to implement the treaty in line with what was agreed on.

This bleak series of failures and semi-failures in stemming climate change influences the situation as much as the laws of physics I mentioned in the previous section do. This is why we’ve come to witness the devastating effects of global warming.

One of the most important things to remember about 'glimpsing into the future' is that it’s not predetermined, but rather significantly contingent on ourselves and the choices we make.

With all this in mind, including the fact that scientists predicted climate change decades ago, can we look ahead and see what’s coming in the next few decades? The answer is yes. One of the most important things to remember about “glimpsing into the future” is that it’s not predetermined, but rather significantly contingent on ourselves and the choices we make today.

Going back to the 2015 Paris Agreement, all countries agreed not only to cap the average global temperature rise — which currently sits just above 1°C — at 2°C, but also that extra effort should go into preventing the planet from heating up by more than 1.5°C.

If the planet gets warmer by another 1°C, the 2°C upper limit was set so that Earth’s climate system remains stable enough for society and nature to hopefully adapt to the new conditions.

According to various studies, provided that the climate gets 2°C warmer than in pre-industrial times, the negative impacts of extreme weather will be even more severe and pervasive, but we’ll still be able to cushion them by means of resilience and adaptation. However, if this threshold is exceeded, it will be more difficult to adapt and we’ll also be facing a higher risk of reaching tipping points — junctures where a whole system deteriorates to such an extent that we are no longer likely to achieve desired results through our own action.

To put it simply, if we reach some of the tipping points, climate change will be beyond our control.

This is why the Paris Agreement establishes an even more ambitious upper limit of 1.5°C. In case we stay within this target range, uncertainty and potential challenges will be considerably easier to address. However, in order to curb the temperature rise, we’ll need to stop releasing CO2 into the atmosphere — we have to move away from coal, oil and natural gas as our primary energy sources within the next three to four decades.

Energy transition takes time because the process itself is very complex — on a global scale, it’s impossible to implement efficient alternatives in a few years. However, even though the majority of people have no faith in it, we should keep in mind that the process is feasible and that cost-effective technological solutions already exist.

Not only is a world where all of our energy needs are met by renewable sources it’s also economically justified.

Not only is a world where all of our energy needs are met by renewable sources technologically possible, it’s also economically justified. The long-standing excuses for not moving towards renewables have been that these technologies are still in their infancy and that there are economic obstacles to their application, which implies that renewables are unreliable and too expensive.

Neither of these excuses holds water anymore. It’s become abundantly clear that renewable energy sources have enough potential capacity to meet our needs and that they are now more economical.

Generating power from renewable sources in today’s day and age costs less than doing so from conventional ones. The economic advantages of this are even more readily apparent if we take into account the loss and damage we may incur in the event that the global temperature rises by more than 2°C.

The most optimistic outcome would be a fossil fuel-free world where the global temperature has increased by another 1°C. Even this would represent a compromise resulting from our indolence. In the best-case scenario, the extra temperature increase of 1° would transpire over the next three decades, but there would be no further warming. 

A converse outcome would be a world where fossil fuels remain our dominant energy source well into the future.

In the latter scenario, the loss and damage caused by extreme climate and weather events would surpass our adaptive capacity. Human society could therefore spiral into constant band-aiding rather than foster development that would help solve the existing problems such as war, famine, poverty and social inequalities.

Unfortunately, the world has more than enough problems as it is, so it seems completely unnecessary to weigh it down with yet another serious challenge like climate change.

Climate change is oftentimes brought up only after the devastating effects of floods, storms, wildfires and heat waves somehow take us by surprise once again, which is especially the case with the media. These discussions tend to be accompanied by gloomy portrayals of the future, although nothing is set in stone.

The moment we’re in is critical for our decision-making. We have a choice and it needs to be understood that we’re not condemned — and neither are future generations — to live a life where today’s extremes become the rule rather than the exception. Hence, the choice is ours — the decision we eventually make is going to help turn the climate crisis into an opportunity for the world in front of us to become a better and safer place for all.


Feature image: Michele Cooper/DPIE via CC.

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