Act now! UN warns of climate catastrophe

Hothouse: A heat map of Earth this summer, when wildfires raged and global temperatures soared.

Can global warming be stopped? In a dramatic new study, scientists claim that humanity has just 12 years to avert catastrophic climate change — they call for immediate and urgent action.

“Rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” According to a landmark UN study, that is what must happen to prevent the devastating impacts of climate change — and it needs to happen fast.

According to the report, the world is on track to breach the crucial threshold of 1.5C warming by 2030.

We are over halfway there already. As of last year, global temperatures have risen by one degree, with carbon emissions hitting a record high in 2017. Under the Paris Agreement, governments have promised to keep warming to “well below 2C” — ideally at the 1.5C mark.

If they fail, the consequences will be disastrous. Warming of more than 2C would kill 99% of coral reefs; rising sea levels would devastate coastal communities; deadly weather events like wildfires and droughts would be more common; and the Arctic would be totally ice-free one summer in every 10.

The worst of this can be avoided if warming is limited to 1.5C, scientists say. But massive changes must be made. Global CO2 emissions would have to decrease by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, with coal almost totally abandoned. By 2050, renewable energy must provide 85% of global electricity, and huge swathes of land would need to be reforested.

“Limiting warming to 1.5C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics,” claims Professor Jim Skea. “The final tick box is political will. We cannot answer that. Only our audience can.”

This means making tight-fisted politicians spend vast amounts of money on environmental initiatives; forcing oil companies to abandon trillions of dollars worth of fossil fuels deposits; and convincing everyday people to cutback on luxuries like international travel.

“Solving climate [change] is going to be harder, and more improbable, than winning World War II, achieving civil rights, defeating bacterial infection and sending a man to the Moon all together,” write Auden Schendler and Andrew Jones in The New York Times. “If the human species specialises in one thing, it’s taking on the impossible.”

Can global warming be stopped?

Red alert

Not likely, some argue. We need unprecedented global cooperation at a time when the international order is fracturing. President Donald Trump has already removed America from the Paris Agreement, and governments will sooner protect businesses than make hard environmental decisions. It is too late.

The report is a turning point, others respond. Scientifically it is still possible, just. Now people must realise the power they hold. Through voting, protesting and campaigning, citizens can force the hand of their leaders — the lives of millions depend on it. Once the political battle is won, everything else will follow.

You Decide

  1. Is it too late to prevent climate change?
  2. How much impact can one person have on the problem?

Activities

  1. In one minute, write down all the ways that a normal person can help fight climate change. Share your ideas with the class. Out of all of them, which one do you think would make the most difference? Why? Is it something you would be willing to do?
  2. Read the New York Times opinion piece in the Become An Expert section. Summarise its key argument in one sentence. Underline all the different language techniques that the writers use. Write one paragraph explaining how they use language effectively.

Some People Say...

“Climate change is no longer some far-off problem; it is happening here, it is happening now.”

President Barack Obama

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Fixing climate change will be expensive. It is estimated that around 2.5% of the world’s GDP will have to be invested annually for two decades. Scientists emphasise that this is a wise investment. “By the end of the century, we find the world will be about 3% wealthier if we actually achieve the 1.5C target relative to 2C target,” claims Marshall Burke of Stanford University.
What do we not know?
What impact this report will make on a political level. “We have everything we need to combat climate change. But everyone has to act now!” tweeted French President Emmanuel Macron following its publication. By contrast, Trump, who presides over the second biggest polluter in the world, was silent on the issue.

Word Watch

UN study
By the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The study cites 6,000 separate studies in the report.
Paris Agreement
Signed by 195 countries in 2015. Under the agreement, every nation must regularly report on the contributions it is undertaking to prevent global warming.
Wildfires
Wildfires raged in several countries this summer, including the US, Greece and Portugal. Some argue that climate change was a contributing factor.
Limited to 1.5C
At this lower level of warming, 70-90% of coral reefs would be destroyed instead of 99%. Sea levels would rise 10 cm less, and the Arctic would be ice-free during one summer in every 100, rather than one in 10.
Renewable energy
Solar power, wind turbines, hydroelectricity and geothermal power. In 2015, 18.1% of the world’s energy came from renewable sources (according to the World Bank).
International travel
A paper published in Nature Climate Change estimates that the tourism industry is responsible for around 8% of global carbon emissions.