Climate Crisis: The Problems
What is happening now?
Some of the problems described below may at first appear unrelated to the climate crisis, but all affect the environment on which human well-being and survival depend. The ability of Earth to sustain human life is dependent on a fairly narrow range of global temperatures. Maintaining a liveable temperature is an obvious necessity, but other related factors must be included to provide the full picture of what is happening.
- According to NASA, average global temperatures have increased close to 1° C since 1880. Eighteen of the 19 warmest years on record have all occurred since 20011. This is faster than any other period in the last 1000 years.2–4 We have very little time before the temperature rise reaches or surpasses 1.5° C. Success in holding the temperature would seem possible if emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) were decreasing, but they are still rising. In 2017 global emissions increased by 1.6% and in 2018 by 2.7%.5 The worst offenders are China, United States, and India. While Canada’s overall impact is small, our per capita emissions are the highest of any developed country6.
- Permafrost has remained frozen for millennia. The rapid heating in the Arctic is now causing it to melt at an increasing rate; as the permafrost melts, it releases methane and carbon dioxide. Methane is a greenhouse gas that potentially has about 80 times more effect than CO2. Scientists estimate the permafrost contains more potential greenhouse gas effect than all the CO2 increase that has entered the atmosphere so far. The melting permafrost is amplifying the heating of the Arctic and Greenland. Also when the permafrost melts the ground sinks, becomes unstable, and causes damages to all types of infrastructure.7
- Sea level rise caused by thermal expansion and melting ice in glaciers is currently 3.1 mm per year. Many coastal areas are already being affected by rising water, forcing people to higher ground or to construct protection barriers. Ninety percent of the heat from atmospheric warming is absorbed by the oceans. This added heat is taking a serious toll on marine life and forcing migration of some species.8,9
- The importance of forests can’t be overstated. They are our best ally for storing CO2 by drawing it out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis. About 30% of land is covered by forest, but this is under threat. The demand for agricultural land is the main cause of deforestation. Other causes are clear cutting for ranching, mining, and urbanization. Wildfires are also a factor in forest destruction. By destroying forests, we not only lose a CO2 storage source, but also cause soil erosion, water loss, ecosystem breakdown, and desertification. Clear cutting and burning are rampant in the world’s largest rain forest, the Amazon.10
- Ocean acidification caused by the absorption of CO2 robs shellfish of the ability to produce the calcium carbonate (CaCO3) needed for shell formation. It also causes damage to coral reefs, adds to biodiversity loss, and interferes with the marine food chain.11
- Consumer demand for meat has risen dramatically. Agriculture (including forestry and other land use) is responsible for 21 % of global emissions.12 Livestock, especially animals raised on factory farms, play a major role accounting for 14.5% of total global emissions. Emissions come mainly from cattle (65% of livestock emissions), and from manure and fertilizer.13 An estimated 70 billion animals (cows, sheep, pigs, chickens) are raised each year for human consumption. The amount of land currently used for and by livestock exceeds other types of agricultural production. Livestock also requires vast quantities of fresh water and grain feed.14
- Storms, floods, and droughts are becoming more frequent, stronger, and last longer; in addition, there are more unusually warm days. For example, July 2019 was the hottest on record. Scientists attribute these events to a connection with the changing climate. The constantly shifting weather patterns are creating havoc around the world. The reference below describe in more detail the complex variability of these threatening conditions.15–17
- Biodiversity loss is taking place at an unprecedented pace.18–20 (More information is available here.)
- An ecosystem is a terrestrial or marine body of land and water that functions as a complete interdependent unit. It contains plants, animals, soil, air, and water interacting together. Healthy ecosystems are crucial to human life. The ecosystem breakdowns we are witnessing have several possible causes, most of which can be traced to human actions; the expansion of agriculture, resource extraction, and urbanization. These disruptive changes cause soil pollution and erosion, biodiversity loss, and water loss in surrounding areas.21–23 Biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse are among the top ten risks for both likelihood of occurrence and impact to humanity.24
- Pollution comes from numerous sources, but extracting and burning fossils fuels are at the top of the list. In addition to the impact on the climate crisis, pollution causes numerous health hazards from various toxic substances poisoning our land, air, and water.25
- Wildfires are exacerbated by extreme dryness and warm temperature and are occurring in countries around the world with all types of forests. A few examples include tropical rainforests in the Amazon, the Congo in Africa, and Indonesia and boreal forests in Canada and Russia. Wildfires are sweeping across western North America, Europe, eastern Australia, and Southeast Asia. Numerous websites are available describing the increasing frequency of wildfires.
- Global dimming is caused by atmospheric pollution that blocks some of the sunlight. It is uncertain how much impact it has on temperature change.26
- Global population has quadrupled in the past 100 years. Projections by the UN indicate a rise from the current 7 billion to 10 billion by 2056.27,28
- The race against time to carry out the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is a demanding task that will not only severely test our will to act but also strain our financial resources.
- The monumental cost of repairing the damage caused by floods, storms, droughts, and wildfires that are attacking numerous countries is creating a financial burden that could extend beyond our means.
- It seems certain that developing countries do not have the financial ability to repair major damage or carry out the climate projects they need to sustain basic living conditions. Without assistance, mass migration could be the result, a situation to be avoided at all costs. Developed countries will need to provide the necessary funding.
What will be the final outcome?
It is not possible to provide a clear answer regarding the final outcome. Scientists have no alternative but to rely on estimates in determining certain calculations on global emissions. For example, the amount and rate of methane escaping from melting permafrost is unpredictable. The final outcome is also affected by several other factors such as the amount of emissions released by each country over the next decade. The rate of future deforestation compared to the rate of reforestation has a bearing on the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
A book published in 2019 entitled This Civilization is Finished29 may serve as a guide to our future. The authors have presented three possible outcomes.
- Possibility 1: Civilization collapses completely with catastrophic results.
- Possibility 2: This civilization crumbles but manages to seed future civilization.
- Possibility 3: This civilization transforms itself rapidly in time to avert collapse.
Given our current predicament, achieving Possibility 3 would be a miracle. The current conditions we have created are unsustainable and we have not taken action soon enough. If changes are not made soon, many of the problems may be beyond human intervention. We know we could be within decades, not centuries, of facing many disasters such as a breakdown in our life support systems, the occurrence of large swaths of uninhabitable land, world-wide epidemics, and uncontrollable migration. Some of these disasters may already be occurring.
Our prolonged procrastination is partly responsible for our plight. The delay can be traced to some lingering human tendencies such as denying unwanted negative realities, tending to construct avoidance strategies to escape unpleasant actions, and ignoring what the future will bring. These inadequate short term survival traits from the past have turned into unwelcome hazards, eroding valuable time.
We have the knowledge. We have the technology.
Do we have the will?
Have a look at some of the solutions we need to act on.
1. NASA. Global Surface Temperature | NASA Global Climate Change. Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/global-temperature. Published 2019. Accessed September 21, 2019.
2. Moberg A, Sonechkin DM, Holmgren K, Datsenko NM, Karlén W. Highly variable Northern Hemisphere temperatures reconstructed from low- and high-resolution proxy data. Nature. 2005;433(7026):613-617. doi:10.1038/nature03265
3. Marcott SA, Shakun JD, Clark PU, Mix AC. A Reconstruction of Regional and Global Temperature for the Past 11,300 Years. Science. 2013;339(6124):1198-1201. doi:10.1126/science.1228026
4. Milman O. Nasa: Earth is warming at a pace “unprecedented in 1,000 years.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/30/nasa-climate-change-warning-earth-temperature-warming. Published August 30, 2016. Accessed September 21, 2019.
5. Le Quéré C, Andrew RM, Friedlingstein P, et al. Global Carbon Budget 2018. Earth Syst Sci Data. 2018;10(4):2141-2194. doi:10.5194/essd-10-2141-2018
6. Climate Transparency. Brown to Green: The G20 Transition to a Low-Carbon Economy. Berlin, Germany: Climate Transparency; 2018. https://www.climate-transparency.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/2018-BROWN-TO-GREEN-REPORT-FINAL.pdf. Accessed September 21, 2019.
7. Cho R. Why Thawing Permafrost Matters. State of the Planet, Earth Institute, Columbia University. https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2018/01/11/thawing-permafrost-matters/. Published January 11, 2018. Accessed September 21, 2019.
8. Nunez C. Sea level rise, explained. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/sea-level-rise/. Published February 19, 2019. Accessed September 21, 2019.
9. Lindsey R. Climate Change: Globa Sea Level. NOAA, Climate.gov. https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-global-sea-level. Published September 19, 2019. Accessed September 21, 2019.
10. Bradford A. Deforestation: Facts, Causes & Effects. livescience.com. https://www.livescience.com/27692-deforestation.html. Published April 4, 2018. Accessed September 21, 2019.
11. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Ocean Acidification. Know your ocean. 2019. https://www.whoi.edu/know-your-ocean/ocean-topics/ocean-chemistry/ocean-acidification/. Accessed September 21, 2019.
12. FAO, ed. Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security. Rome: FAO; 2016. http://www.fao.org/3/a-i6030e.pdf. Accessed September 21, 2019.
13. FAO. FAO – News Article: Key facts and findings. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/197623/icode/. Published 2019. Accessed September 21, 2019.
14. Boucher D, Elias P, Goodman L, May-Tobin C, Mulik K, Roquemore S. Grade A Choice?: Solutions for Deforestation-Free Meat. Cambridge, MA: Union of Concerned Scientists; 2012. https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/legacy/assets/documents/global_warming/Solutions-for-Deforestation-Free-Meat.pdf. Accessed September 18, 2019.
15. NOAA. July 2019 was hottest month on record for the planet | National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. https://www.noaa.gov/news/july-2019-was-hottest-month-on-record-for-planet. Published August 15, 2019. Accessed September 22, 2019.
16. Cattiaux J, Chauvin F, Douville H, Ribes A. Weather Extremes and Climate Change. Encyclopédie de l’environnement. September 2018. https://www.encyclopedie-environnement.org/en/climate/extreme-weather-events-and-climate-change/. Accessed September 21, 2019.
17. Union of Concerned Scientists. The Science Connecting Extreme Weather to Climate Change (2018). Union of Concerned Scientists. https://www.ucsusa.org/our-work/global-warming/science-and-impacts/climate-attribution-science. Published 2018. Accessed September 22, 2019.
18. UN Environment, ed. Global Environment Outlook – GEO-6: Summary for Policymakers: 1st ed. Cambridge University Press; 2019. doi:10.1017/9781108639217
19. McKie R. Biologists think 50% of species will be facing extinction by the end of the century. The Observer. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/feb/25/half-all-species-extinct-end-century-vatican-conference. Published February 25, 2017. Accessed September 22, 2019.
20. Ceballos G, Ehrlich PR, Dirzo R. Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. July 2017:201704949. doi:10.1073/pnas.1704949114
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23. Hunziker R. The Impending Ecosystem Collapse. CounterPunch.org. https://www.counterpunch.org/2015/07/14/the-impending-ecosystem-collapse/. Published July 14, 2015. Accessed September 22, 2019.
24. World Economic Forum. Global Risks 2019: Insight Report. Geneva, Switzerland: World Economic Forum; 2019. http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Global_Risks_Report_2019.pdf. Accessed September 22, 2019.
25. Sustainability for all. The link between climate change and air pollution. https://www.activesustainability.com/climate-change/link-between-climate-change-air-pollution/. Published 2019. Accessed September 22, 2019.
26. Strom C. Difference Between Global Warming and Global Dimming | Difference Between. 2019. http://www.differencebetween.net/science/nature/difference-between-global-warming-and-global-dimming/. Accessed September 22, 2019.
27. US Census Bureau. Population Clock: World. https://www.census.gov/popclock/world. Published 2019. Accessed September 22, 2019.
28. Roser M, Ritchie H, Ortiz-Ospina E. World Population Growth. Our World in Data. May 2013. https://ourworldindata.org/world-population-growth. Accessed September 22, 2019.
29. Goodreads. This Civilization is Finished. https://www.goodreads.com/work/best_book/71405175-this-civilization-is-finished. Accessed September 22, 2019.