Climate reports have been released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) since 1990. Hundreds of the world’s top scientists use their expertise to gather and assess data and provide the most comprehensive information on climate change and how policy makers should best deal with this global issue. The most recent report, released only a couple of months ago, reads very similar to previous ones, the only differences being: the worsening scale of damage to our planet, the accelerated rate at which it is happening and the urgency at which we need to act.
So, the question is: what are we, as a global community, going to do about it? Currently, we are seeing many big projects around the world: investment in renewable energy, innovative technologies, divestment in fossil fuels, to name a few. Big cities and whole countries have committed to reducing their emissions. The outcome of the UN’s COP24 looks promising, with 200 countries agreeing on the enforcement of emissions targets set at the Paris Agreement, as well as the provision of financial support to less economically strong countries in dealing with climate change. But, not all our leaders are on board. And this is where the problem lies. This is a global problem which requires a global solution.
Scientists have been studying the Earth’s climate for the last 150 years, but it was in 1938 that it was first suggested by Guy Stewart Callendar, a steam engineer with a fascination with weather, that increasing levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), due to the burning of fossil fuels, were increasing the Earth’s temperature. The findings unfortunately were not taken seriously. This discovery was related to what we call the greenhouse effect. The Earth’s atmosphere naturally contains gases, such as C02 and methane, which we call greenhouse gases (GHG) (the most abundant one actually being water vapour). This is because they act in a similar way to a greenhouse. When the sun’s heat reaches the Earth, these gases trap some of the heat. This is actually very important for sustaining life on Earth. Without them, the sun’s rays would bounce back into space and Earth would be too cold for life to exist. It is because of these GHGs that we have experienced ice ages – scientists discovered an exact correlation between concentrations of GHGs in the atmosphere and changes in temperature of the Earth’s surface. So, in fact, climate change has been happening naturally throughout Earth’s history; Earth has been warming and cooling for a very long time.
So, what exactly is the issue? For the last 150 years, since the Industrial Revolution, we have been burning coal to make electricity, an amazing invention which has changed our way of living exponentially. But, what scientists have discovered, is that the amount of coal we are burning, along with other fossil fuels, such as oil used in transport, are emitting more CO2 into the atmosphere, thereby increasing GHG concentrations, trapping more heat, resulting in an increase of Earth’s global average temperature (by the way, they are called fossil fuels because coal was formed when tree and plant remains sunk to the bottom of swamps about 300 million years ago, and oil is plankton that died and settled on the bottom of undisturbed oceans during the Jurassic period – hence the name fossil fuel). There are loads of other factors that are causing a rise in GHGs, such as the mass clearance of trees (when trees die they produce CO2, as well as when they are alive they take in CO2 – known as a carbon sink) and beef production (cows produce large amounts of methane, which is a more concentrated GHG, as well as the land-use and transport required to feed them). On top of that, we now have 7.5 billion people living on the planet (to put that into scale, it would take about 225 years to count 7.5 billion seconds).
Anyway, so the Earth is warming, big deal? It’s been doing it for hundreds of millions of years. The difference this time is, in the past, the change in climate would occur over thousands of years, giving plenty of time for species to adapt. This most recent warming, caused by us, is happening so fast – 10 times as fast in fact – to adapt is like asking you to build a space rocket in 10 seconds. You may have the capability to figure out how to build one eventually, but to do it in 10 seconds would be almost impossible. There is new evidence suggesting that the world’s largest mass extinction (to date), occurring approximately 250 million years ago and wiping out 96 percent of all marine life and 70 percent of land species, was caused by global warming. A volcanic eruption released so much GHG into the atmosphere that it resulted in Earth’s temperature to rise by 10 degrees. There was absolutely no time for adaptation.
Even if you have not read the climate report or don’t really follow the news, it is clearly visible that climate change is real and we are currently experiencing some of its effects. I live in Adelaide, South Australia. When I was a child, a day over 40 (degrees Celsius) was an extremely rare event. If it was ever forecast to be over 40 (I remember because it may have meant a day off school), I don’t recall it ever reaching the predicted forecast. Now we experience heatwaves with consecutive days reaching over 43 degrees, and we recently experienced a day this summer reaching 48 degrees! In 2006, I did a degree in environmental studies. Climate change was a big part of our studies. Climate reports projected more extreme weather – more hurricanes (hurricanes form over the ocean if the water temperature is above 27 degrees, and climate change would result in a rise in sea temperatures), droughts (more consecutive days without rain), bush fires (caused by drought) and floods (when the rain does come, it comes all at once) – all of which we are seeing. They projected sea level rise, melting ice caps and ecosystem collapses, and these things are happening on a much worse scale than was projected back then. The most recent report warns that, to stave off IRREVERSIBLE damage, we need to keep the global average temperature from rising above 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. We have currently reached 1 degree.
Now, just changing the subject slightly …If you grew up in Australia during the 80s and early 90s you may have heard about the hole in the ozone layer. This gigantic hole was discovered in 1974 and is actually an extreme thinning of ozone in the atmosphere over Australia, and even more so, Antarctica. Ozone is a molecule mostly concentrated in the stratosphere, between 15-30 kilometres above our heads. It is essential for human life, as it absorbs harmful UV-B radiation, which has been linked to skin cancer, cataracts, suppressed immune systems, to name a few. The cause of this potentially devastating discovery was also identified – a major one being chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), used in fridges and aerosols.
So, scientists had identified a human-induced environmental issue which was potentially damaging for the entire planet. So, what did we, as a global community, do about it? Well, firstly, we listened to the science. There was no denying, debate or blaming natural causes. The science was clear. This was a global environmental problem caused by human actions and it required a global solution. Secondly, we acted. In 1987, global leaders from 197 nations signed a treaty to phase out the use of cfcs. And guess what? We did it. Cfcs were phased out all over the world. Then, fast forward 30 years or so, and what has been the outcome of this global collaborative effort? Scientists have found that the ozone layer is healing.
Now, when we compare these two scenarios, what can we see? Firstly, not ALL our leaders are taking the climate science seriously. Currently some of our leaders are putting their own agendas ahead of what scientists are urging the world to do. There is a 97 percent consensus among peer-reviewed climate scientists that human-induced climate change is real. In other words, these are scientists who are published in peer-reviewed journals; they are unbiased and not linked to oil companies, nor are they linked to politicians attempting to discredit them for their own short-term gain, and they are not tobacco companies trying to turn the public against science-based information because it claimed their product caused cancer. On top of that, these scientists are CLIMATE scientists – they study Earth’s climate. To ask the opinion of any other scientist would be like asking an endocrinologist about brain surgery – they would have some idea, but they are not experts on the topic.
Secondly, evidence shows that global action works. I see the whole scenario of the ozone layer as an important example of how it was through good leadership and global collaboration that this positive outcome has come to be. This is what is needed to combat climate change. It was not left up to individuals to fix the hole in the ozone layer. It was not up to people to choose to purchase a more expensive but environmentally friendly cfc-free fridge, or to say no to aerosols. Cfcs were taken off the market, through a global decision, because they were destroying the atmosphere in which we need to sustain a healthy life. I do believe that making ethical lifestyle choices is important and every little bit counts in making a difference, it’s just not going to be the savior of our planet. It was leaders coming together which drove the change, and it was abrupt change. There were not 28 years’ worth of reports. There were not endless conferences with targets to reduce cfcs by a small percentage over the next 50 years. We took accountability for our actions and recognised that the cause needed to be eliminated. As well as that, our lifestyles were not impacted by the change – we still have fridges and aerosols, just without cfcs. Electricity generation is not the problem, burning fossil fuels is, and we have the intelligence and humanity to learn from our mistakes and come up with new ways, just like we did before. And we, as individuals do have a bit of power to drive this action, by voting for leaders who will do the right thing.
Thirty years ago, we humans found ourselves faced with a global environmental problem, which we had caused, and we needed a solution. Global leaders listened and acted and stopped irreversible damage. Let’s hope they step up and do the same again.