Rising CO2 emissions, sea level rise and melting ice caps. These are issues that you will have been at least peripherally aware of for most of your life. We take it as a given, just another detrimental side effect of human existence on earth. But our continued exploitation is beginning to take its toll.
You may have heard in the news this week a message for us all to pay attention to following some very grave predictions issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It is predicted that if current trends continue, parts of the planet will become uninhabitable within the next few decades, with sea level rise threatening to flood coastal settlements.
Since industrialisation began back in 1850, there has been a one degree Celsius increase in global temperature. I know what you’re thinking – one degree? For 168 years of human activity, that doesn’t sound like a lot. One degree may not feel a lot different in terms of temperature either, but just like the specific 37 degrees required by humans for optimum functioning, the Earth too has an equilibrium. And disruption to this has a much greater impact than you may suspect.
Possibly one of the biggest concerns in terms of climate change is the exponential rise in greenhouse gas emissions since the onset of the Anthropocene (i.e. the human era) as a result of burning fossil fuels. Findings in the recent IPCC report warn that CO2 does not actually disappear once it has been produced and can linger in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. With current figures revealing there are now 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere compared to 250 pre-Anthropocene, drastic action is required to give us any hope of achieving zero net carbon emissions by 2050.
While the burning of fossil fuels is widely considered the largest contributor of CO2 to the atmosphere, it is not the only culprit. According to a 2013 report from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, the livestock industry is responsible for a huge 14.5% of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, which is perhaps not surprising when you consider the well-known association between cows and methane.
In an era of fast-paced consumerism, we are devouring Earth’s resources at an alarming rate. Known oil reserves are only predicted to last another 40 years at current rates of consumption and 30% of these must remain unexploited to keep temperature rise from reaching two degrees. Political action is required on a global scale to make a difference, but with the Republican administration of the planet’s largest economic nation refusing to accept that climate change is happening, we have a difficult challenge ahead of us.
So, what are our options? In order to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, there must be a long-term switch from non-renewable fossil fuels to cleaner, renewable energy sources such as wind, fusion and solar power.
However, Graciela Chichilnisky, a leading authority on climate change, believes that green energy alone is no longer enough. As co-founder of Global Thermostat, a company looking at removing CO2 directly from the air, she warns that ‘trees and clean energy [are] the long-run solution but we have no time to wait for the long run. We need a short-run solution now, and one that encourages and facilitates the transition to the long-run solution.’
In their despair, scientists have also been looking into geoengineering techniques such as iron seeding, which involves injecting surface waters of the ocean with iron to accelerate uptake of atmospheric CO2. However, this must be approached with extreme caution, as by messing with Earth’s fundamental natural processes, we risk causing even more damage. If we’re not careful, coral bleaching and decalcification of crustacean shells as a result of CO2-induced ocean acidification could lead to complete disruption of the very ecosystems we rely upon for survival.
It has reached the point where we cannot sustainably continue to live as we do. And if we do nothing, we can expect to see a lot of change to life as we know it.
Remember the unusually hot summer we had this year? Extreme weather events such as this and the UK’s chilling ‘Beast from the East’ last winter will only become more frequent as the effects of climate change intensify.
In our busy lives, saving the planet becomes a distant concern as we go about day-to-day living. But it’s about time we really do start paying attention to our energy consumption. Switch off the lights to save the polar bears, eat less meat and consider switching to a greener energy provider.
Is global warming the beginning of our end? The answer to that question now lies with you.