The UN's Climate Warning Is Far Worse Than You Think
The reality of 2.9 degrees of climate change is harrowing.
A recent UN report has found that we are on course for 2.9 degrees Celsius of global warming by the end of the century. This figure shouldn’t come as a surprise, as several highly regarded studies have all independently come up with the same figure. However, the timing of this report makes it all the more impactful, as COP28 is approaching fast. Our window for stopping irreversible and devastating climate change is shrinking incredibly fast. As such, COP28 might be the last chance the international community has to halt this self-made apocalypse. But 2.9 degrees is just a number with no real context. It can be challenging to grasp what such a future actually means for the planet and for you. So what exactly is the UN warning will come to pass? And how can we tackle such a global disaster?
The climate is a complex web of interlinked environmental systems. As such, there are a plethora of sometimes contradictory effects of global warming that I would struggle to summarise in a single article. But, in the context of 2.9 degrees of global warming, I can talk about climate tipping points, which happen at a given level of global warming and can’t be undone, and generalised impacts, such as how much crops are affected per degree of global warming. This will give you an accurate enough understanding of the consequences of this report without getting too bogged down in the details.
So, what climate tipping points would be triggered by 2.9 degrees of climate change? I will save the best for last…
Well, the first obvious one is ice loss. The Greenland Ice Sheet, West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the Barents Sea Ice will all collapse and melt away, along with most of the world’s mountain glaciers. These events can be triggered by only 2 degrees of global warming, which we have just hit. Once this ice has disappeared (which will take several years), global sea levels will surge by 0.6 meters. This might not sound like a lot, but 8 of the 10 biggest cities in the world would become flooded and uninhabitable. Moreover, hundreds of millions of people living near the coast will be displaced. All in all, this sea level rise will cause a vast global refugee, economic and housing crisis in developing and developed nations.
The melting ice will dramatically affect circular ocean currents, which rely on them to create the dense, cold, high-salinity water which powers them. One such current in particular threat is the SPG Convection in the Labrador Sea. This current drags vast amounts of nutrients from the depth into the upper waters, bolstering the region’s and neighbouring regions’ marine ecosystems. Without it, extensive American and Canadian fishing stocks would plummet. But, after only 1.8 degrees of global warming, this vital current will grind to a halt and stop, devastating marine ecosystems and ruining many fishing-dependent industries and communities. Furthermore, this marine current acts as a climate regulator for much of North America and Europe. Without it, extreme weather in these regions will become far more frequent and potent, creating frequent and vast economic damage.
Then there is the coral reef die-off. Corals can’t survive water temperatures even a few degrees above the average. Under such temperature stress, they undergo bleaching when they eject their symbiotic algae and effectively starve to death. Coral reefs are the rainforests of the ocean, and 25% of all marine species rely on them at some point in their life cycle. Without them, the entire marine ecosystem will falter and suffer vast losses as prey species disappear.
What’s more, this drop in marine diversity will significantly hamper the marine ecosystems’ ability to rapidly adapt to our warming planet, hot boxing the devastating damage from climate change. Again, any community that relies on fishing, which is around 3 billion people worldwide, will face food insecurity. Sadly, coral reef die-off starts happening after only 1.5 degrees of warming. So, this devastating downward spiral is already happening.
But some climate tipping points will actually make climate change worse!
For example, the Boreal Permafrost abrupt thaw. Permafrosts are soils that are frozen year-round. This extreme cold helps trap carbon dioxide methane released from decomposition and even creates a type of ice with methane trapped in its molecular structure called methane clathrate. All in all, global permafrost contains 1,400 billion tonnes of carbon emissions! That is equivalent to 38 years of current human emissions. Most of these carbon-rich permafrosts are in the vast Boreal region of Northern Russia, which is warming up rapidly thanks to climate change. As such, scientists estimate that between 3 and 4 degrees of climate change will be sufficient to trigger a mass thaw event. Meaning that, in theory, such an event could happen by the end of the century. The colossal amount of carbon emitted from this would cause 0.4 degrees of further warming, triggering yet more climate nightmares.
Then, there is the Sahel and West African monsoon shift. After about 2.8 degrees of global warming, weather patterns over Africa shift, and the annual monsoons will fall over the Sahel and Sahara, turning it from a barren desert into a green plain. This is why this tipping point is also known as the Saharan greening. You might think this tipping point will have a positive impact, but you’d be wrong. Dust from the Sahara contains all the base nutrients for life, and the prevailing wind blows it into the Atlantic and even the Amazon. Without this flow of nutrients, both the Atlantic and Amazon would be starved, putting them under immense stress. Also, when this dust combines with salty sea spray, it actively destroys vast amounts of atmospheric methane, one of the worst greenhouse gases we emit. In short, once the Sahara goes, there will be a marked jump in global temperatures and a decline in some of the most productive ecosystems on the planet.
Speaking of which, the Amazon rainforest die-off is another tipping point. After 2 degrees of global warming (though some studies put it at 3.5 degrees), the amount of rainfall in the Amazon will drastically reduce, causing the forest to die off. As much of the rain created in the Amazon comes from expiration and evaporation from trees, this loss creates a negative feedback loop that can wipe out the entire forest. The reduction of nutrients flowing from the Sahara if it greens will also accelerate this process. The Amazon has 150 billion tonnes of carbon trapped in its soils and biomass, and this die-off will release this back into the atmosphere, causing an additional 0.2 degrees of global warming.
There are also some direct impacts on us humans.
You see, for every degree of global warming, it reduces global crop yields of wheat by 6.0%, rice by 3.2%, maize by 7.4%, and soybean by 3.1%. This is due to a multitude of reasons, such as droughts, extreme weather, heat stress and increased rates of crop diseases and pests. Global wheat production in 2022/2023 reached roughly 780 million tonnes. With 2.9 degrees of global warming, this figure would decline by 140 million tonnes! For a sense of scale here, the UK is mostly self-sufficient in wheat production, and it only grows 15 million tonnes per year. So, the losses in food supply caused by the UN’s predicted level of climate change are enough to cause food scarcity across the entire globe in developing and developed countries alike! Needless to say, this will profoundly impact not only our quality of life but our economy too.
There will also be a deluge of climate refugees. A recent study found that by 2050, 1.2 billion people will become climate refugees after having to flee their homes from extreme weather, economic losses, property damages and uninhabitable conditions. By the end of the century, this number could easily run into the several billions. This will be the most significant humanitarian and refugee crisis since WW2. Again, this will impact not only our quality of life but put immense pressure on international politics and even dramatically affect economies across the globe.
On the topic of economic loss, a recent study found that by 2100, global GDP will be 37% lower than it would be without the impacts of climate change. For some context as to how dramatic a reduction that is, the US’s GDP only fell by 4.3 percent during the 2008 crash, and the US bore the majority of the brunt during that economic disaster. In other words, the global economy will be utterly kneecapped by climate change, tanking our quality of life.
Now, I haven’t covered all the disastrous knock-on effects of the reality of 2.9 degrees of global warming. But by now, you get the picture; it will be utterly grim for everyone. So, how do we solve this issue?
You might think it is hard, as we are all complicit in the destruction of the climate through the industries we rely on to live our modern lives. This is true, but the vast majority of the carbon emissions we emit come from a minuscule number of people.
For example, a recent Oxfam report found that the wealthiest 1% on Earth emit two-thirds of the planet’s emissions! A household with two partners, a child and an income of $130,000 after tax is in the richest 1 per cent on Earth, so this might apply to quite a few of my readers. But it doesn’t end there; if you dive emissions up based on what company they come from, just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions!
So, if you want to curb global warming, there is one incredibly easy and fast way to do it. Taxing corporations and even individuals on the amount of carbon they emit. Not only would this incentivise companies and people to reduce their planet-destroying emissions, but it could also raise funds to pay for carbon capture projects and even environmental conservation.
So, will COP28 take heed of this devastating UN report? I hope so. There are plenty of ways to tackle the crisis, not just carbon taxes. But time is running out, and we only have a handful of years to implement the legislation needed to save the planet before it is too late. Hopefully, this report, along with the mountains of other sound climate studies, will kick world leaders into action and take whatever steps are necessary to avoid us walking blindly into such a self-made apocalypse.
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Sources: PNAS, Zurich, Global Citizen, Sky, The Guardian, Al-Jazeera, The Independent, The Guardian, Science.org, EPA, NSIDC, Scientific America, Science Direct, UCL, Federal Reserve History, Nature.org, USDA, UK Gov, Vox, Will Lockett