Is it too late to reverse global warming?
With global average temperatures on the rise and an uptick in extreme weather events, a pressing inquiry looms: Can we still put the brakes on climate change? The brief response, given the current trajectory, appears to lean towards “yes.” Nonetheless, experts underscore that a window of opportunity remains to sidestep catastrophic outcomes, highlighting the exponential repercussions of each added degree of warming.
In a comprehensive 2021 report by the world’s leading climate scientists, an examination was conducted on the prospects of capping global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) or 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels in the coming decades, aligning with international climate objectives.
While the report suggested that it is still theoretically plausible to adhere to these temperature thresholds, it arrived with a sobering caveat: achieving such objectives would necessitate prompt, large-scale, and radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The report also indicated that the likelihood of surpassing the 1.5-degree Celsius threshold, deemed a safer limit, is on the rise.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has characterized the 1.5-degree target as being “on life support.”
In the absence of substantial emissions cuts, scientific forecasts depict a bleak future for our planet. By 2100, global average temperatures are anticipated to surge by a staggering 2.5 to 4.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 to 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit). Even before reaching this point, the ramifications of climate change will intensify. Once the critical 1.5-degree Celsius threshold is breached, we can expect more frequent heatwaves, protracted warm seasons, and abbreviated cold spells. Crossing the 2-degree Celsius mark will pose significant challenges to agriculture and public health systems.
Nonetheless, hope remains on the horizon, according to climate scientists. Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at Imperial College London, emphasized that achieving the 1.5-degree target “is still theoretically possible” if global emissions reach net zero by 2040. Even with a global net-zero emissions milestone by mid-century, there is a one-third chance of reaching this goal.
Recognizing the importance of understanding that climate change doesn’t manifest as an immediate crisis but rather as a gradual process with a time gap between actions and outcomes is crucial. Even if all human emissions of “heat-trapping gases” were halted today, there would be a sustained increase in Earth’s temperature for several decades before achieving stability. This delay is a result of ocean currents redistributing heat stored in the deep ocean. However, once this surplus heat dissipates into space, global temperatures will reach a state of equilibrium. Experts assert that the supplementary warming stemming from this “latent” heat is unlikely to surpass 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit (0.5 degrees Celsius).
Ajay Gambhir, a senior research fellow at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London, underscored the direct relationship between emissions reduction delays and the heightened risk of extreme impacts. We are already witnessing the repercussions, including extreme heatwaves, heightened crop failure risks, forest fires, and coral reef bleaching.
Gambhir cautioned, “The longer we postpone action on addressing climate change by reducing our emissions, the warmer the world will become.”
While the consequences of human activities on climate change are irreversible within the timeframe of current generations, every effort to limit future temperature increases offers significant long-term benefits. Reduced emissions align with the timescales of political decisions that drive those reductions.
Without a doubt, the hurdles are substantial. If we do not take substantial action in the coming decades, global temperatures are poised to rise by 2.5 to 4.5 degrees Celsius by 2100, as per the latest projections. To counter this trend, a two-pronged strategy is imperative: “Mitigation,” involving the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and “Adaptation,” focusing on coping with the climate changes already underway.
The pivotal issue revolves around our future emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. The central point to remember is that it is not too late to mitigate the pace and extent of climate change by curtailing human emissions of “heat-trapping gases” and black carbon. Even if all human emissions were halted today, Earth’s temperature would continue to rise temporarily before stabilizing. Natural processes would gradually remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, leading to a decline in global temperatures.
In essence, while we cannot halt global warming overnight, we can certainly mitigate its pace and extent by taking proactive measures to reduce emissions. This approach remains our best chance to safeguard the planet for future generations.
It is undeniably true that attaining global climate goals will necessitate a remarkable departure from conventional energy production and consumption. Shifting towards energy sources that do not release greenhouse gases, including solar, wind, biofuels, and nuclear power, represents a crucial measure in mitigating climate change. These alternatives offer viable pathways forward, though they confront various challenges, from expanding manufacturing capacity to determining suitable locations for infrastructure deployment.
Beyond mitigation efforts, some have proposed alternative methods known as “climate engineering” or “geoengineering.” These methods include tactics such as introducing light-reflecting particles released into the uppermost layers of the atmosphere to reduce the Earth’s surface temperature or encouraging the proliferation of phytoplankton in the oceans to absorb carbon dioxide. While these techniques show promise, numerous scientists exercise caution, underscoring worries regarding possible adverse outcomes and lingering legal and ethical dilemmas.
The American Meteorological Society issued a paper expressing reservations about geoengineering, emphasizing that more research is needed to assess its feasibility and potential consequences.
In recent years, there has been a surge in global activism led by young people demanding urgent and ambitious action to address climate change. Simultaneously, a sense of climate despair has gripped some individuals who view the climate crisis through apocalyptic lenses, believing that human civilization may be on the brink of collapse.
The question arises: Should we resign ourselves to the belief that a transition to a 100% clean energy economy will not happen swiftly enough? Must we prepare for the possibility of a global economic collapse and mass homelessness instead of focusing on aggressive emissions reduction measures like the Green New Deal?
The answer is a resounding no.
Climate despair, which appears to be gaining ground, is counterproductive and detrimental to the critical climate action required. It is essential to remember that, scientifically, it is not too late to chart a different course. The cost of climate solutions is decreasing, making a transition to clean energy increasingly feasible. Rewiring the world with clean energy has the potential to enrich the lives of present and future generations and all living beings on Earth.
Rather than succumbing to pessimism, it is imperative that we redouble our efforts to change policies, educate the public about environmental issues, and promote the growth of regenerative, sustainable businesses. Climate change poses immense challenges, but the current moment is not one to abandon hope. Instead, it is a moment to take bold and decisive action to secure a sustainable and prosperous future for all.