Are we on an uninhabitable planet?

In the novel, The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells sets out a frightening vision: The world we live in is on the verge of drastic and catastrophic change. We have essentially destroyed our world beyond repair. Complacency and ignorance have finally caught up with us; our once-prosperous lives will soon come to a halt and crash.

If that sounds bleak and dystopian, it’s because this is so. The fragile climate on Earth has been brought to a break point within a single century, and the children have failed to correct the sins of the parents. We have to face the implications now and do what we can to change this sad situation.

Most world leaders gathered in Paris in 2015 to agree on a new set of commitments to combat climate change. Politicians had evidently understood the severity and urgency of our situation; many assumed that mankind had turned its filthy history into a corner. The core goal of holding global average temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels came from those talks, a number generally known as the threshold at which catastrophe begins.

But there is a problem: We ‘re going to break this 2-degree ceiling right through. Only take the study published in 2018 by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It notes that if governments now take drastic action on global warming and quickly enforce all negotiated policy changes in Paris, we are likely to get a 3.2-degree rise in global temperature before warming stops. What’s worse, no developed nation is even close to introducing any of the policy reforms at present.

More concretely, what does that mean? Basically it seems pretty grim for our latest best-case scenario.

If countries woke up tomorrow and miraculously met Paris’ emissions targets, the world’s ice sheets would still collapse within our lifetime. This would eventually cause over a hundred cities to flood, including Miami, Shanghai and Hong Kong. At 3 degrees of warming, southern Europe would be in permanent drought, and the annual area of the United States scorched by wildfire would increase by 600 percent.

And note, that is an positive point of view.

Estimating a worst-case scenario by 2100, the UN has put forward the stunning 8 degree figure. At this temperature, entirely uninhabitable equatorial regions become. There will be massive firestorms destroying our forests. Two-thirds of the cities in the world would flood, and tropical disease would flourish in what we once considered the Arctic.

But maybe the most alarming thing about global warming is its frenzied pace. Geologically speaking, we are used to thinking of the World as a slow, almost lethargic mechanism that takes millions of years to change.

But this is a dangerous fallacy. More than half of carbon emissions have come in the last three decades and the overwhelming majority since World War II. It’s no exaggeration to say that the planet has been brought to its knees within a single generation – and that the task of saving it rests solely on our shoulders now.

To save the planet, though, we need to understand the consequences of climate change. And these are more complex than they seem.

Things are not hopeless for humanity – not yet, anyway – but some level of catastrophe is unavoidable. Working out how severe this level will be is difficult, because climate change depends on so many different moving parts, like how much more carbon we emit or what technologies we might invent to reduce this.

But there are other, more complex forces that warm the world – forces that we don’t fully understand or perhaps don’t know about.

The most complicated of these are called cascades. A cascade happens when an impact of climate change warms the earth even more, in a harmful feedback loop, creating more results and more heating.

The melting of the Arctic ice sheets is one simple example of a cascade. Our polar ice caps reflect a large amount of sunlight back into space because the color white is a perfect reflector of light and heat. With our ice sheets diminishing, less heat is reflected and more is drained from it. This warms the earth and induces faster melting of the ice sheets, further accelerating warming.

And that’s just one part of this cascade. Arctic permafrost – frozen rock and soil – contains up to 1.8 trillion tons of carbon. As the permafrost thaws, this carbon will be released into the atmosphere, leading to more warming. What’s worse, some of this may also evaporate as methane. Comparing their warming effects over a span of 20 years, methane is 86 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Wildfires are another worrying cascade. Because we’re experiencing unprecedented heat, with 16 of the 17 hottest years on record occurring since 2000, our forests are more susceptible to blazes. What’s more, because our forests are drier, these wildfires are becoming more severe, lasting longer and burning more carbon-sucking trees.

Yet wildfires have the most detrimental impact of the pollution they emit. When trees consume carbon to transform to oxygen, they can not make it go down. They also store it in the roots, trunks, and branches. When a wildfire demolishes a forest, carbon stored over thousands of years is released back into the environment, turning our forests into carbon sinks effectively. This continues to heat up the world, making potential wildfires much more likely.

Wildfires are a prime example of climate change which turns our environment on us. First, we ‘re going to see how the global warming does the same to our atmosphere.

Imagine tomorrow waking up , taking your mobile and checking the weather for the week. Depending on where you live, you’ll probably see showers punctuating some warm , clear days. If you see a alert about the extreme weather, you will most probably be surprised.

But in the next few decades this will change, as red and amber alarms light up the computer with alarming frequency. Storms and floods may seem as routine to you as your monthly haircut after a while. And the fact is, it is happening now.

Global warming’s relationship to storm intensity is simple. As air warms, it’s able to hold more moisture. This increases the severity of storms by bringing heavier rainfalls and more severe flooding.

As for hurricanes, meteorologists know that they are powered by warm seas. As our ocean surface temperatures increase, so do hurricane wind speeds. Not only are storms getting more violent but they’re also becoming more common.

The number of storms has doubled since 1980 according to the Science Advisory Council of European Academies. In the United States, damage from these “garden variety” storms has risen sevenfold during that span of time, and that doesn’t even account for dents from missed working days in economic efficiency. You would think that storm prevention measures or infrastructure upgrades have made it easier to weather, so to speak, but you would be wrong: US storm power cuts have also doubled since 2003.

And it’s not just storms which are increasing in number – it’s hurricanes too. In September 2017, Hurricane Irma swept through the Caribbean, devastating island communities and causing $64 billion of damage. This was a Category 5 hurricane – the most severe type – and so intense that these islands could endure them perhaps once every generation.

But one more Category 5 hit just days later: Hurricane Maria. This maelstrom killed more than 3,000 people and weakened some of the world’s poorest nations by an estimated $94 billion. It especially hit Puerto Rico hard, leaving the island without power for months and drinking water. It has been a serious humanitarian crisis.

This double blow unfortunately can no longer be considered an anomaly. Researchers also found that the frequency of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes is only increased by 1 degree of warming by 25 to 30 per cent globally. Hurricanes as strong as the Hurricane Katrina in 2005 are predicted to double in frequency by 2100.

Ever since Plato’s day, we’ve been captivated by the story of Atlantis – a mythical island in the Atlantic Ocean, drowned by wrathful gods. Soon though, we won’t need to use Atlantis as inspiration for our films and fiction – we’ll have plenty of our own in the twenty-first century.

The explanation for this comes down to the climate change’s best known consequence: melting polar ice caps triggering sea level rise. Without cutting pollution, we’ll see our oceans rising in the next century from 1.2 to 2.4 metres.

At face value, these figures may sound pretty harmless but they are fatal. Bangladesh-now home to 164 million residents-is going to be submerged. Among other submerged destinations will be all the most beautiful beaches in the world, the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice, the headquarters of Facebook and even the White House.

But this isn’t just a problem on a time-scale of 100 years. If we sustain our current warming rates, the Indonesian megacities in Jakarta will be entirely underwater by 2050.

A lot of the servers and fiber optic cables that power the internet – the reason you ‘re reading these blinks right now – might be submerged in the next 20 years, too. If precautionary steps are not taken, the Chinese city of Shenzhen, where a large proportion of smartphones are made, will also likely be flooded.

Things get even worse if we look at a longer timeframe – past 2100. In the next few years, failure to curb pollution now would result in oceans 6 meters higher.

In this scenario, roughly 444,000 square miles of land will be swallowed by the sea – including ports, power plants, naval bases, farmlands and entire cities. Asia will be most severely affected, with huge cities like Shanghai, Mumbai and Kolkata either flooded or entirely underwater.

To prevent these apocalyptic scenarios, many experts have said that the action we take in the next ten years will be critical. This isn’t reassuring, given current consumption habits: Each year, the average American emits enough carbon to melt 10,000 tons of Antarctic ice. In fact, US consumption is so high that if Americans were to adopt the carbon footprint of their European counterparts – on a continent not known for its environmentally-friendly lifestyles either – the country’s emissions would already be slashed in half.

The human-driven natural disasters we’ve seen so far have a clear impact on our wellbeing. Now though, let’s explore impending climate catastrophes from a more personal angle. And it’s hard to think of a more personal subject than humankind’s food supply and the consequences of it deteriorating: famine and malnourishment.

It’s fair to say that civilization has been built on grain. Since the start of the Agricultural Revolution around 12,500 years ago, when we first began cultivating cereals such as barley, humans have had a food surplus. This allowed people to devote their lives to things other than feeding themselves, such as pottery, metalworking and religion. In this new world, trade flourished, cities grew and empires were forged.

Fast forward to today, grain already accounts for 40 per cent of our diet. Rice is the main source of food for two billion people and, together with wheat and maize, makes up two-thirds of all human consumption of food.

These staples aren’t going to change soon either, but two things are going to change: supply and demand. The UN predicts the planet will need twice as much food as it does now by 2050. Since food production already accounts for a third of global emissions, this is a huge challenge. But rising demand is only the beginning; supply-side issues are even more concerning.

For every degree of warming our planet experiences, cereal crop yields decline by about 10 percent – mostly because it makes our environment less hospitable to these plants. Imagine a world in 2050 with 5 degrees warming: 50 percent less grain and twice the demand for food.

Even with declining yields, where would we grow grain? The tropics are already too hot to grow it efficiently, and currently-optimal regions are fast becoming ineffective. The world’s natural wheat belt moves 160 miles north every decade – what happens when we run out of “north?”

Climate change also affects food crops in another, more subtle way: through nutritional value decreasing. Trailblazing mathematician Irakli Loladze has found in the last 15 years that atmospheres rich in carbon dioxide make plants grow larger, but reduce their nutritional value. One research examining the arguments of Loladze found that the nutrient content of agricultural plants has decreased by up to 33 per cent since 1950.

In 2016 about 815 million people were undernourished in the world. If the near future predicts an rise in population, food scarcity and a loss of nutrients, to what amount will this raise?

We rarely stop to think about the impact medical science has made on our lives. Life expectancy in the Roman Empire was about 25 years, and before mass production of antibiotics in the twentieth century, even a small infection could prove fatal.

But all the progress that medical science made over centuries could be wiped out in a single generation by climate change. In fact, we might be on the verge of a global health crisis that could come in two forms: old diseases revived and current ones rejuvenated. Let’s deal with dormant diseases first.

The bacteria of ancient diseases now trapped in our Arctic ice sheets, some of them extinct for millions of years. Some were there longer than Homo sapiens walked the planet, ensuring our immune systems would be totally stumped on how to fend them off. More common diseases are also present in the ice-perhaps bubonic plague or smallpox.

One research team drilling through Alaskan ice found the deadly 1918 flu strain that killed up to 50 million people. What’s more, in 2016, when a reindeer’s 75-year-old frozen carcass thawed two dozen people were infected with anthrax, demonstrating the danger that the return of such diseases still trapped in ice would pose.

Even now, the second possibility is more concerned by medical professionals: the proliferation of emerging diseases. Continuing in next post.

Check out my related post: How to be a force for good?

Interesting reads:

7 thoughts on “Are we on an uninhabitable planet?

  1. How many times does this message need to be put before our so-called ‘leaders’ begin to take it seriously and act urgently? We still see lip service, as if those in power prefer the gradually disappearing status quo to addressing the true reality. Covid has shown that political change can respond rapidly to scientific fact. How many more inundations, hurricanes, wildfires before the planetary emergency is really addressed?

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