Environment

All is not lost, but climate action is more urgent than ever

Climate cataclysm is bearing down upon us, but all hope is not lost. Instead of despairing and giving up, it's now more imperative than ever that we act

Climate illustration

Illustration by Mateusz Napieralski

There is no point in sugar-coating the pill. Climate breakdown due to global heating caused by our carbon-polluting activities is ramping up year on year, and the future looks bleak. There is no requirement any longer to listen to the increasingly dire warnings from climate scientists and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), you just need to check the news feeds or watch your TV screens to see what is happening to our world. 

Our climate isn’t just changing, it is beginning to fall apart. The resulting explosion of extreme weather over the last five years is now impossible to ignore, from biblical floods in Pakistan to unprecedented wildfires in the US and Canada, and record-breaking heat pretty much everywhere. So far, the UK has been shielded from the worst, but the 40C+ temperatures recorded last summer and the wildfire that surged through the village of Wennington on the outskirts of the capital provide a small glimpse of what is coming.

It is perfectly possible that what we are experiencing has never happened before in the 4.5-billion-year history of the Earth. Yes, the climate has changed in the past, many times. And it has been hotter than it is now, all down to natural variation caused by a multiplicity of factors. But levels of carbon dioxide – the principal greenhouse gas – in the atmosphere and the average temperature of our world have probably never climbed so rapidly. Since the industrial revolution, the pumping out of carbon dioxide by human activities and the destruction of forests and other natural ‘sinks’ that absorb carbon has resulted in a 50 per cent rise in the gas in the atmosphere. This in turn has led to the rapid heating of the planet, which is causing our once-stable climate to fail. 

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Averaged over the last five years, the temperature of our world has climbed by a little under 1.3C compared to pre-industrial times. Such is the rate of increase that 1.5C could be reached in the next few years and almost certainly by 2030. This is a figure that is widely regarded as marking the so-called dangerous climate change ‘guardrail’, beyond which climate breakdown becomes all-pervasive, affecting every part of the planet and insinuating itself into every aspect of our lives. 

To have any chance of dodging this, global carbon dioxide emissions would need to fall 50 per cent by 2030 – a little more than 80 months away. There is still much talk of how vital it is that we keep 1.5C ‘alive’, but the brutal truth is that it is dead in the water. It is now practically impossible for us to stay this side of the guardrail, so we must accept the fact that dangerous climate change is certain. Many countries are coalescing around 2050 as a target for achieving net-zero emissions – in other words carbon neutrality – but by then our planet could easily be 2C hotter. 

The reality is that an almost complete lack of action on cutting emissions means that we are headed for a world wherein rapid sea level rise will swamp vast stretches of coastline, drought and famine stalk the land, migration reaches biblical levels, and society and economy begin to fray at the edges. The single most terrifying projection is that by mid-century – just 27 years away – our world will need 50 per cent more food to feed extra mouths, but crop yields could be down as much as 30 per cent. If realised, this would mean – on average – a halving of available food per person. It really doesn’t bear thinking about. But we must think about it, to feed anger that, in turn, drives action. 

So where do we go from here? Our situation is dire, no question of that, and we and our offspring now have no choice beyond adapting to a world that our grandparents would barely recognise. But it is vital to understand that everything is not yet lost, and that action is now more, not less, urgent. Every tonne of carbon we can stop being emitted, every 0.1C rise in the global average temperature that we can prevent makes a difference. For the sake of those who come after us, our priority now has to be stopping dangerous becoming cataclysmic. 

To have any chance of a future worth living, we need to slash fossil fuel usage by 2030. The fossil fuel sector was subsidised by governments to the tune of $1 trillion in 2022, and this has to stop now. At the same time banks need to end the funding of new projects while insurance companies must stop insuring fossil fuel infrastructure. This would go a very long way towards making new exploration and exploitation of fossil fuel reserves uneconomic. Adding a carbon tax levied at the well head and mine entrance would be the icing on the cake. Burning all known fossil fuel reserves would add a mind-boggling 3.5 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, more than the total emitted since the industrial revolution. This would lead to a double-figure global average temperature hike and the likely collapse of human civilisation. It can’t be allowed to happen. 

At the same time as bringing the fossil fuel sector to heel, there has to be a push to extract carbon from the atmosphere. Artificial means of doing this are being touted, but these are hugely energy and resource intensive. Far better to do the job nature’s way, via an end to deforestation and a massive tree-planting programme, combined with the renewal of other habitats such as wetlands and peatlands that are super-absorbers of carbon. This would not only massively increase the amount of carbon sucked out of the air but give a huge boost to the well-being of degraded ecosystems. 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. 

The biggest blocks to effectively tackling the climate emergency are the world’s governments, who simply don’t get just how devastating climate breakdown is set to be. Here in the UK, the government is heading in completely the wrong direction, way off track in terms of meeting future emissions targets and enabling and promoting new oil, gas and coal projects at a time when doing so is nothing less than senseless and immoral. 

Comedian and actor Kiri Pritchard-McLean translates Prof. Bill McGuire’s climate science. Find out more about Climate Science Translated here

It is becoming ever clearer that the only way to get governments and world leaders to act as they should is through grass-roots pressure that forces them to do so. If you want to help, then please do cut down on driving and flying, recycle like a demon, switch to a green energy tariff, but at the same time join a protest movement and vote – both locally and nationally – for the individuals and parties who walk the talk on climate. You will feel far better for it, and so, ultimately, will our planet.  

Why not start in Parliament Square between April 21 and 24 when more than a hundred thousand like-minded people will attend The Big One, a huge coming together of those concerned about the destruction of the climate and the natural world supported by more than 70 organisations, including Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. I can guarantee that, despite the grim prospects for the future of our planet, you will return home with a spring in your step and hope in your heart that, together, we can still turn things around. 

Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at UCL, and author of Hothouse Earth: An Inhabitant’s Guide

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