I have read some scary books about climate change. “Falter”, for example, or “The end of Western Civilisation, a view from the future”.
“Hothouse Earth: An Inhabitant’s Guide” is now on that list. We are on course for close to a 14 per cent rise by this date that will almost certainly see us shatter the 1.5°C guardrail in less than a decade. This means there is now no chance of dodging a grim future of perilous, all-pervasive climate breakdown. There is little doubt that our climate is changing for the worse far quicker than predicted by earlier models. What the author means by hothouse Earth is not an ice-free planet, but a world in which lethal heatwaves and temperatures in excess of 50°. ’Global warming has a cosy feel to it that is far from justified by the reality, while the rapidly increasing incidences of extreme weather show that our once stable climate is not simply changing but well on its way to failing.
When Arkwright opened his mill 250 years ago, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere was 280 parts per million (ppm). This is because Arkwright’s legacy is not only the creation of an economic wonder capable of meeting all our wants and needs but a prodigious exhalation of pollution that has seen an additional 2.4 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide added to our planet’s atmosphere.
Based upon current policies and action, we are on our way toward a hothouse future that would see a global average temperature rise of 2.7°C by 2100. Anything above 1.5°C will see the advent of a world plagued by intense summer heat, extreme drought, devastating floods, reduced crop yields, rapidly melting ice sheets and surging sea levels. A rise of 2°C and above will seriously threaten the stability of global society.
There is no quick fix
There is increasing talk of resorting to technological fixes to suck up any excess carbon still being pumped out by the net zero target year in order to attempt, eventually, to bring the global average temperature rise down to below 1.5°C. The problem is that such fixes don’t yet exist at anywhere near the scale required, and – as I will discuss later – all those proposed are costly, environmentally damaging, risky or downright dangerous.
The book then goes on talking about all the nasty surprises in store, such as tipping points, water rising 7 meters, positive feedback loops, pollution (carbon dioxide, radioactive isotopes or microplastics) infiltrating and contaminating everything (including the placentas of pregnant women), floods, humid heatwaves, weakening jet streams, polar vortexes, super El Ninos, self-sustaining wildfires, atmospheric rivers, mega-droughts, desertification, hurricane-like storms, super cyclones, crop failure, soil erosion, famine, climate migration, infiltrating salt water, contamination supplies of fresh water and soil, concrete rot, methane bombs, earthquakes, climate wars, disease (malaria, dengue, cholera, Lyme, etc.), plagues, rats, water shortages and planet hackers. Read “The Synthetic Age”.
Perhaps the most ludicrous carbon extraction proposal is a plan to construct 10 million artificial ‘trees’ designed to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere by means of chemical reactions. This at a time when we are hacking down the same number of real trees every five or six hours. The irony and absurdity make you want to weep. All these ideas are also a distraction that seeks only to address the symptoms of global heating rather than the cause and which detracts from efforts to bring down emissions as fast as possible.
It might be good to make a comparisons with the past. During the Paleocene–Eocene, natural processes resulted in a carbon outburst that pushed global temperatures rapidly upwards by around 6–8°C, leading to marine extinctions and major changes to environments and ecosystems. What really should make us sit up and take notice is that the average annual rate of carbon dioxide release during the PETM could have been as low as 1 billion tonnes a year, even a little less. Today, human activities are pumping out the gas at a rate around 40 times faster.
2.3 meters per one degree
The bad news is that sea level ultimately increases by 2.3 metres for every one °C rise in global average temperature. The only outstanding question is how long a multi-metre increase would take. Including the possibility that the heat may continue to build rapidly in sudden jumps rather than climb slowly and incrementally. Climate change is also exponential.
The book asks what the outcome would be if we burnt at least most of the planet’s known fossil fuel reserves. On average, the planet would heat up by 16°C (61°F), bringing its average temperature to more than collectively. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine that we would sign up to self-imposed genocide simply to put a bit more cash in the pockets of fossil fuel company CEOs.
What do we need to do?
It is all already there. Read “Drawdown”. It is not rocket science:
- Fossil fuel companies responsible for leaking around half of all methane emitted by human activities need to be made – by law – to clean up their act immediately.
- Insurers need to play their part by backing away from providing a safety net for fossil fuel facilities.
- Planting 1.2 trillion trees on a little more than 10 per cent of our planet’s land surface – an area equal to China and the United States combined – could ultimately soak up almost one-third of all the carbon dioxide released by human activities that remains in the atmosphere today.
- Leave the rainforests to restore. One great and astonishing piece of news is that it looks as if tropical rainforests – if left to their own devices – can get back to almost 80 per cent of their old-growth condition in just twenty years.
- Restore peatlands and wetlands, so they store more carbon.
- Cut way back on flying and shipping consumer goods around the planet.
- Electric cars are all well and good, but replacing the world’s 1 billion personally owned fossil fuel-powered vehicles with 1 billion electric ones brings its own baggage. A far better way forward is via the ramping up of cheap, green and efficient public transport systems, journey-based carpools, car-share clubs and the incentivisation of walking and cycling.
- One quick way of making a serious dent in emissions would be to take away what seems to be a free pass to pollute from the richest 1 per cent, who were responsible for 13 per cent of emissions in 2013. Looked at individually, the annual carbon footprints of some of the world’s mega-rich are staggering, uplifted to extraordinary levels – nearly 34,000 tonnes in one case – by their monstrous playthings: fleets of high-performance cars, homes on every continent, private jumbo jets, super-yachts and the like. Weighing in at around 75 tonnes, the emissions expelled by a ten-minute flight on Branson’s Virgin Galactic rocket are equivalent to an entire lifetime’s emissions of one of the poorest billion people on Earth.
We have seen nothing yet
If you want to summarise the book in a few words, it is this, we have seen nothing yet. It ends with two scenarios describing London. One negative, 44 degrees, cholera and malaria outbreaks, read sewage in the Thames because of the floods, migrant killing grounds, dust, drought, carbon budgets and misery. The optimistic scenario has every roof in London, either covered with greenery, painted white to reflect the Sun’s rays or clad in solar panels. Traffic-free avenues and, plentiful public transport powered by wind, solar and the new network of tidal barrages that have made cars largely redundant. Streets are lined with homes that have been retrofitted to be carbon-free and insulated to keep out the summer heat. There is a huge variety of wildlife and provide all sorts of water sports for bank holiday visitors. To the west, giant, fuel-cell-powered airships come and go from their Heathrow terminus; There are smallholdings powered by solar grow the fruit and vegetables that land every day on the tables of city residents. The motorways that used to head out from the capital in all directions are mainly gone now, replaced by fast electric trains and tram networks or demolished and redeveloped as market gardens. In that, the book reminds of “Ministry for the future”
If you have been worried or frightened by what you have read, that’s good. You should be, especially on behalf of your children and their children. It is high time that free-market capitalism – an ideology that simply cannot be sustained on a small planet with limited resources. We should move to quality-adjusted GDP metric. Doughnut economics or Buddhist economics.
The final message
In the decades since the first UN COP Climate Change Conference in 1995, we have used up an entire bale in prevarication and inertia, so all we are left to clutch at is the last straw. We cannot fail to grasp it.