An apocalyptic future is materializing that threatens human civilization and all life on the planet. The truth about climate change is more terrifying than our worst nightmares. We are teetering on the brink of a world that is the stuff of nightmares. This includes starvation, riots, disease, violence, and war.
Climate change augurs a wide range of adverse impacts. These impacts range from the seemingly innocuous, like more potent poisonous plants, to cataclysmic extreme weather events, like continent-sized superstorms. Other serious threats include widespread coastal flooding, storm-surges, heatwaves, drought, wildfires, mass migration, famine, disease, conflict, anoxia, species extinction and ultimately human extinction.
Scientists tell us to avert the worst impacts of climate change, we must keep temperatures from rising no more than 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial norms. Given our current trajectory, we are looking at temperature increases that could be as much as four times the upper threshold limit. A temperature increase of 4 degrees would wreak bloody havoc on an unprecedented scale, seven degrees would cause hell on earth. The situation is dire as we are already more than 1 °C above preindustrial norms.
As stated in Seeker:
"More heat is sending the planet spiraling closer to the point where warming's catastrophic consequences may be all but assured."
We are on the cusp of a number of tipping points that will irreversibly devastate life on the planet, the same planet we depend on for our survival. This has prompted some scientists to suggest we have entered a new epoch.
The Age of the Anthropocene
Scientists are suggesting that human impacts on the Earth warrant a new geological epoch. This new epoch is being called the age of the Anthropocene. Study after study tells us that human activities are putting life on Earth in jeopardy.
As referenced in the Guardian, there are two recent independent studies that have added to the vast amount of data corroborating the conclusion that we are in the age of the Anthropocene.
Last August, Eric Holthaus wrote a piece published in Rolling Stone in which he cited a number of reasons why we should be nervous. This includes everything from bee mortality to the collapse of the ocean food chain.
It is important to understand that climate change is not some distant event, these catastrophic events are already beginning to unfold. Some of the most cataclysmic impacts of climate change are taking shape far faster than scientists had anticipated. Many are concerned that climate change could explode exponentially.
"The worst predicted impacts of climate change are starting to happen and much faster than climate scientists expected."
New research suggests the climate situation is far worse than initially thought. According to this and other studies, we can expect short-term temperature increases of between 1.6 °C and 2.1 °C above pre-industrial norms. Impacts will be far worse than predicted in most research as these studies commonly focus only on CO2, however, carbon is but one of several greenhouse gasses (methane, nitrous oxide, and others).
A paper from the National Academy of Sciences states that climatic changes could occur within decades or even sooner. The most challenging changes are the abrupt ones, said James White, a professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder and chair of the report committee.
While exact timelines are impossible to know for sure, a paper co-authored by a team of 14 climate-scientists integrated all previous research and came to the conclusion that the truly catastrophic impacts of climate change will hit the tropics in 2020 and the rest of the earth in 2047.
According to an analysis byCarbon Brief, we have only five years (2021) until we exceed our carbon budget, which the IPCCC defines as the amount of carbon that can be released into the atmosphere while staying within the prescribed 1.5 C upper threshold limit.
Others have suggested that we could see a very rapid onset well before the dates referenced above. Jacquelyn Gill is a paleoecologist at the University of Maine who studies extinction. Her research reveals,
"...really compelling evidence that there can be events of abrupt climate change that can happen well within human life spans. We're talking less than a decade."
New research suggests that climate change is expected to cause coastal flooding of some of the world’s biggest and most populous cities far sooner than many had envisioned. In July 2015, James Hansen, the former NASA climatologist, published research which suggested that mean sea levels could rise 10 times faster than previously predicted.
"We conclude that multi-meter sea level rise would become practically unavoidable. Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea-level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization."
As reviewed in a Robert Scribbler post, half a billion people already suffer from famine and droughts and the situation will only intensify as the planet continues to warm. A study released in April from the European Commission has found that 240 million people across the world are now suffering from food stress. Greenpeace said that 330 million people in India alone are faced with water shortages and the threat of famine. Millions more are under both food and water stress in Vietnam as a record Southeast Asian heatwave ramps up to never-before-seen extreme temperatures.
The death of our children
Children bear the brunt of climate change. As reported by the NRDC, WHO statistics say that children under the age of five suffer more than 80 percent of the illness and mortality attributable to climate change. Further, weather-related disasters will affect as many as 175 million children globally over the next decade.
The death of our oceans
Ocean acidification is a disaster on a planetary scale. It is already too late for vast swaths of the Great Barrier Reef and other coral reefs around the world. Plankton is the basis of the ocean's food chain. A July 2015 study that shows acidifying oceans are likely to have a "quite traumatic" impact on plankton diversity. Areas with extremely low oxygen keep increasing, causing ever larger ocean dead zones where nothing can survive. The mass die-off of plankton also has implications for terrestrial creatures. Research published in the journal Bulletin of Mathematical Biology from the University of Leicester in the UK, suggests that rising ocean temperatures will lead to declining plankton populations. Since plankton is responsible for two-thirds of atmospheric oxygen, this could cause the Earth's oxygen levels to fall dramatically, killing massive numbers of people and animals.
Research suggests that global warming played a role in the world's largest extinction event known as the Great Dying, 250 million years ago at the end of the Permian Era. This event wiped out more than 90 percent of all species of plants and animals.
As reviewed in the Atlantic, a person alive today is more than five times as likely to die in an extinction event like runaway climate change than in a car crash. This is the conclusion of a new report on the economics of climate change from the U.K. based Global Challenges Foundation. According to the Stern Review, over the course of a century, the average person runs an almost ten percent chance of being annihilated by an extinction event. The report states that the most likely such event is catastrophic climate change. A 2008 Oxford study says that number is even higher.
Biologists have shown that humans are behind the fastest rate of species extinction since the end of the reign of the dinosaurs 250 million years ago. This research also concludes that humanity is also at risk of extinction.
Paul Ehrlich, one of the researchers who contributed to the study said that there is very little doubt that "we are now entering the sixth great mass extinction event. Even worse, the research shows that we triggered the event ourselves." He added, "We are sawing off the limb that we are sitting on."
Professor Phil Gibbard, a geologist at the University of Cambridge said:
"The Earth is now on course for a sixth mass extinction which would see 75 percent of species extinct in the next few centuries if current trends continue."
The current climate trajectory is rushing headlong towards catastrophe, moving us ever closer to doomsday. Ours would not be the first civilization to succumb to climate change, as evidenced by the demise of cultures in South America and the Indus valley.
Climate change is one of the most studied phenomena in human history. Thousands of research papers tell us how dire the situation is and how urgently we must act. The fact is that climate action is incredibly urgent, we must acknowledge that even with a consorted global effort it will be difficult to solve. A New York Times headline read "New Dark Age Looms".
However all is not hopeless, there may be time if we act now. This is the view contained in UNEP's Global Environmental Outlook (GEO-6), their most comprehensive report to date. The title says it all: “Rate of Environmental Damage Increasing Across the Planet but There Is Still Time to Reverse Worst Impacts if Governments Act Now."
“The obvious truth about global warming is this: barring miracles, humanity is in for some awful shit,” David Roberts said. He also said: “Climate change is simple: We do something or we're screwed...”
We cannot be sure that our efforts will succeed. Some believe that we will exceed the upper temperature threshold limits even if we stopped spewing GHGs into the atmosphere today. Perhaps the most incisive remark on climate change comes from EPA chief Gina McCarthy who said, “the scary thing is doing nothing.”
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.