Global warming: doomsday could be only 3 years away

05 Aug 2017


Although climate change may now rank alongside ISIS as the world's most feared security threat according to a new Pew report, awareness of the horrors that global warming will unleash in the future is certainly not as widespread as it should be.

While climate change has been a problem for decades now, policy makers continue to relegate it to the back burner or see it with tinted lenses. In India, for example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to unveil grandiose plans for solar energy and electric cars even as forests are mercilessly decimated and rampant construction is permitted on natural waterways, in the name of 'development'.

After all, if there's a countdown to doom, we still have time on our hands. We could always drastically reduce emissions next year; we're safe continuing as normal for now, many people seem to feel.

They couldn't be more wrong. The former head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figureres, recently joined a group of scientists in stating that we have a much smaller window on our hands - just three years!

The group says this is all the time we have in which the planet needs to get global emissions in a sharp downward curve, just to prevent our certain destruction as a species.

And in a sobering piece in New York Magazine, well-known environmentalist David Wallace-Wells says that ''even within the lifetime of a teenager today ... parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable.''

He cites the melting Arctic permafrost as one alarming example: ''It contains 1.8 trillion tons of carbon.'' That's twice as much CO2 than is currently trapped in our atmosphere from burnt fossil fuels. And, when it thaws, it will evaporate as methane, a greenhouse gas 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of cooking the planet.

And methane is not the only thing that will be released: hidden within the ice lie diseases that have not circulated in the air for millions of years. And, as human beings have never been exposed to them, our immune systems will be woefully unprepared to deal with such ''prehistoric plagues'' when they finally emerge from the ice.

If that's not terrifying enough, there are plenty of more recent viruses to contend, such as the 1918 flu which killed 100 million. Researchers discovered remnants of it in Alaska, and they suspect that the Siberian ice holds both smallpox and bubonic plague.

And, to make matters worse, that permafrost may melt sooner than we think: the time scale on which climate change is happening only seems to grow faster and faster with each new report. According to the UN's latest climate survey, the gold standard in global warming analysis, the world is not only warming faster, but its impacts are much worse than originally thought.

Two degrees of warming used to be regarded as the acceptable threshold for climate calamity: never mind that it will unleash ''tens of millions of climate refugees upon an unprepared world'', writes Wallace-Wells. But, now there is only a small chance that we will stay under the 2°C ceiling enshrined in the Paris climate deal. And those odds are even bleaker since Donald Trump pulled the US out of the accord two months ago.

In fact, according to research out this week, there is only a 5 per cent chance that earth will stay under the 2°C mark by century's end: ''We're closer to the margin than we think. If we want to avoid 2°C, we have very little time left,'' warns Adrian Rafters, a University of Washington academic. ''The public should be very concerned.''

According to the UN's report, we will hit 4 degrees of warming within the next 80 years, and such a temperature rise will usher in changes not seen since the last Ice Age. And, to make matters worse, 4°C is only the median projection: the upper end of the curve goes as high as 8°C.

And that doesn't even include the impacts of permafrost melt; or the fact that less ice means that there will be less sun reflected and thus more warming; or that more cloud cover will trap more heat; or that forest dieback will mean that less CO2 is absorbed:

''Each of these promises to accelerate warming, and the history of the planet shows that temperatures can shift as much as five degrees Celsius within thirteen years,'' says Wallace-Wells.

And if that's not alarming enough, warmer temperatures will also bring about more wars as people are forced to migrate from their homes whilst growing hungrier, thirstier, and more irritable in general with the heat. According to experts, every half-degree of warming will lead to a 10 to 20 per cent increase in the chance of armed conflict.

That means that social conflict could more than double this century.

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