Climate scientists say we're hurtling towards "hell on Earth"

But not all is lost. Here’s what you need to know about the most damning climate change report yet.

by Douglas Greenwood
09 August 2021, 11:39am

Li-An Lim via Unsplash

Nothing starts your Monday morning quite like the crushing reminder that centuries of fossil fuel consumption, paired with a penchant for excess transatlantic travel, red meat and dairy has led us to a climate crisis, many elements of which are now irreversible. As wildfires and flooding sweep across several continents as we speak, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change revealed their latest report this morning, and it’s arguably one of the most damning yet. Evidence shows that decisions made by politicians in power have had devastating consequences on our environment. As Oxford University Professor Tim Palmer put it: “If we do not halt our emissions soon, our future climate could well become some kind of hell on Earth.”

The IPCC’s 1300-page, 13 chapter report is the most up-to-date understanding of the climate system, and provides key evidence into the role human activity played in catalysing our current crisis. You know, the kind that many major politicians claimed was a hoax all along. António Guterres, the UN’s Secretary General, has called the report a “code red for humanity”. Greta Thunberg commented on the report on her Instagram, saying the damning report contained “no real surprises”.

Don’t have time to filter through the whole thing? Here are the key takeaways from it.   

Humans are responsible for the planet’s warming

The report confirms what many of us have known all along: it is “unequivocal” that the actions of humans have led to the warming of the earth. Everything from O-Zone layer depletion to the retreat of glaciers due to ocean warming can be linked back to human activity. The IPCC know this because they’ve simulated what a natural warming of the earth would look like if human beings weren’t present, with graphs in the report showing a marginal temperature change if only solar and volcanic activity affected it. Factor in human beings present however, there has been almost a 1.5 degree celsius temperature increase since the mid-20th century alone. The higher that goes, the more the planet descends into crisis. 

If we keep going like this, it spells disaster

The IPCC found that, unless we made serious changes to our CO2 production levels, we’d certainly reach a 1.5 to 2 degree celsius temperature increase by 2034 -- just 13 years away. And that year could creep even closer if we don’t cut carbon emissions sooner. A few degrees seems might not seem like much, but that minor change in surface temperature could make the freak weather events we live through commonplace. “Many changes in the climate system become larger in direct relation to increasing global warming,” the report says. “They include increases in the frequency and intensity of hot extremes, marine heatwaves, and heavy precipitation, agricultural and ecological droughts in some regions, and proportion of intense tropical cyclones, as well as reductions in Arctic sea ice, snow cover and permafrost.” Flash flooding and forest fires could very quickly become the norm. 

We’ve irreversibly damaged the planet

While many elements of global warming are salvageable, there are a few elements that are “irreversible”. The most significant are the ice caps. The report cites cold weather events (think blizzards, for example) as the only abnormal weather event decreasing in frequency, while heatwaves have significantly increased in number. As a result, “it is virtually certain that irreversible, committed change is already underway” when it comes to melting ice sheets and ocean warming, the report suggests. The month of September could be ice free in the Arctic Ocean terrifyingly soon.

Politicians and fossil fuel giants could be put to trial

The IPCC and several other climate organisations recently took the oil company Royal Dutch Shell to court, claiming that their CO2 output was a breach of human rights legislation. In the end, the court ruled that the “policy intentions and ambitions for the Shell group largely amount to rather intangible, undefined and non-binding plans for the long-term”, meaning they had to, by law, reduce their carbon emissions by 45% by 2030. They’re hoping this report provides enough evidence of foul play by fossil fuel giants and complicit politicians. “We’ll be taking this report with us to the courts,” Greenpeace’s Kaisa Kosonen said. “By strengthening the scientific evidence between human emissions and extreme weather, the IPCC has provided new, powerful means to hold the fossil fuel industry and governments directly responsible for the climate emergency.”

We can stop things getting even worse

While we’re living in a world where the effects of climate change are palpable and all around us, there are ways to prevent it getting significantly worse. It requires the action of those in power. It requires us reaching net zero CO2 emissions as soon as possible: using cleaner technology to reduce greenhouse gases and disposing of fossil fuels in as safe a manner as possible; like carbon capture and storage. "The thought before was that we could get increasing temperatures even after net zero, but we now expect nature to be kind to us,” Professor Piers Forster from the University of Leeds, who worked on the report said. “If we are able to achieve net zero, we hopefully won't get any further temperature increase; and if we are able to achieve net zero greenhouse gases, we should eventually be able to reverse some of that temperature increase and get some cooling."

Not all hope is lost, but these are drastic measures that need to be taken as soon as possible if we have any hope at ensuring we keep sea levels and temperatures low, and people all over the world safe from the impacts of the climate crisis.

You can read the full report over here

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