There’s more than a 99% chance that this year will be one of the 10 hottest years in recorded history, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
There was once a time when people could claim that climate change was happening too gradually to act upon with any sense of urgency. But that time has long since passed, probably when the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide surpassed 350 parts per million (ppm), back in 1988. It’s now at nearly 420 ppm, the highest concentration in millions of years.
The evidence of climate breakdown has been all around us for years and, for the skeptics yet to be persuaded, we now have enough data to create shocking visualizations that show the scale of change.
#Temperature anomalies 1880-2017 by country 🌡. No matter how you visualize it, it looks scary! #GISTEMP#dataviz#climatechange#globalwarming— Antti Lipponen (@anttilip) August 25, 2018
Download / watch hi-res 🎞: https://t.co/ZdGPVTM5yOpic.twitter.com/cAn9wG8FPU
These graphics look like warning signs flashing for help amid an emergency. Yet the emergency continues to go largely unheeded by governments worldwide.
Humanity is past the point of fully mitigating the climate crisis and returning to a pre-industrial state. We’re now in the stage of managing the crisis, adapting to an increasingly hostile planet. At this point, we can only avert worst case scenarios from happening. That might seem like a grim way to frame it, but avoiding worst case scenarios would prevent a tremendous amount of suffering and hardship, save the majority of the world’s wildlife, and create the possibility for broad environmental regeneration.
Leaders need to recommit to the $100 billion per year climate financing they promised for adaptation and mitigation. There needs to be decisive collective action focused on supporting low-income countries and keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. And we need to prioritize food security, nutrition, and livelihoods by directing climate adaptation resources to rural communities and smallholder farms, while working to protect and restore nature in partnership with local and marginalized communities.
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change argues that the technology, financial resources, and public consensus are available right now to create a just transition to a sustainable future.
The threat of climate change has never been more extreme, but the solutions have never been more within reach.
3 Things to Know About Climate Change
The planet is 1.18 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels.
The 20 richest countries account for 80% of greenhouse gas emissions across time.
We can still prevent more than 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming and transition beyond fossil fuels.
What’s Causing Climate Change?
At the most basic level, climate change is being caused by the current economic system, which turns the planet and its naturally occurring resources into commodities to be exploited for the profit of a few.
Under this system, it’s perfectly acceptable to make products and engage in activities that pollute sources of drinking water, the air we breathe, and the food we eat, as long as they generate a profit for someone.
There are certain countries and economic sectors within this system that have an outsized share of the blame.
The burning of fossil fuels — coal, oil, and methane gas — for transportation, electricity, and heating releases carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, causing the ongoing rise in average temperatures. Around 75% of emissions come from sectors dependent on fossil fuels. The remaining 25% comes from the conversion of land, especially forests, into spaces for human settlement and economic development.
The United States is the country most responsible for the climate crisis, having released 20% of all emissions historically, according to Carbon Brief, which also found that the richest 20 countries account for 80% of all emissions. That means that more than 150 countries, encompassing the majority of the global population, account for just 20% of emissions.
This inequality exists on the individual level as well, with some people having far greater environmental footprints than others. The richest 1% of people, for instance, account for more emissions than the poorest 50% of people. The world’s billionaires — like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk — have environmental footprints several hundred times greater than the average US citizen, who already has an environmental footprint three times greater than the average human.
What Are the Impacts So Far?
A young boy walks past a house submerged in water caused by Cyclone Idai in Inchope, Mozambique, Monday March 25, 2019.
A young boy walks past a house submerged in water caused by Cyclone Idai in Inchope, Mozambique, Monday March 25, 2019. Cyclone Idai's death toll has risen above 750 in the three southern African countries hit 10 days ago by the storm, as workers rush to restore electricity, water and try to prevent outbreak of cholera.
The cruelest irony of the climate crisis is that the countries least responsible for it are facing the harshest impacts and have the least means to adapt.
African countries, for example, account for only 4% of global carbon emissions, while the continent faces severe droughts, desertification, and extreme weather tied to climate change.
While global temperatures have risen 1.18 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, some countries are experiencing extreme heat increases on a more regular basis.
In India and Pakistan, temperatures have surged above 110 degrees Fahrenheit and up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit in recent weeks. These are temperatures that endanger human life, making it impossible to work outdoors for extended periods, and causing heat stroke, exhaustion, and other ailments. They’re especially devastating in communities that lack easy access to air conditioning. A similar heat wave in 2015 killed more than 2,500 people.
Rising temperatures are a public health crisis. They also threaten global food production, increasing the number of people who suffer from hunger worldwide. The World Food Programme warns that an additional 189 million people will struggle to get food if emissions aren’t drastically reduced and warming reaches 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In the event of 4 degrees Celsius of warming, that number could jump to 1.8 billion people going hungry.
The world’s 500 million smallholder farmers who provide a significant portion of the world’s calories are struggling to deal with hotter conditions that dry out crops and the soil and expand pest populations. Without adequate resources to adapt, many may be forced to leave food production behind entirely. In fact, global agriculture could decline by 30% by 2050 as a result of climate change, while the global population is expected to surge to more than 9 billion.
The North and South Poles have warmed at three times the rate as the rest of the world, causing trillions of tons of ice to melt and pour into the ocean. Sea levels have risen more than 9 inches over the past century, causing coastal regions to flood and be swallowed by the ocean.
The impact of these storms causes extreme harm to vulnerable communities already struggling to adapt to changing environmental conditions. Money that would otherwise be spent on supporting smallholder farmers, mitigating poverty, and improving healthcare systems, instead gets diverted to recovering from disasters. Year after year, the problem compounds. As a result, up to 132 million people could be pushed into extreme poverty by 2030, and many more into multidimensional poverty.
How Can We Take Climate Action NOW?
The Alto Mayo Protected Forest.
The Alto Mayo Protected Forest.
With greenhouse emissions continuing to rise, it can sometimes seem like the climate crisis is unstoppable.
But countries have never been more capable of confronting the problem, achieving the goals of the Paris climate agreement, and realizing a just transition away from fossil fuels.
First and foremost, countries have to rapidly phase out fossil fuels. That means no new fossil fuel development can take place, according to the International Energy Agency.
The $5.9 trillion currently spent on fossil fuel subsidies needs to be shifted to renewable energy and climate adaptation efforts. Just $1.9 trillion of these subsidies could ensure all countries are adequately adapted to climate change.
The remaining amount, if spent on mitigation, could help to restore 30% of the world’s land and marine ecosystems, creating carbon sinks that could get us a third of the way toward reducing emissions in line with 1.5.
Renewable sources of energy don’t even need subsidies at this point — they’re now the cheapest form of energy in the world. But to accelerate this transition, governments need to invest in their widespread deployment, as well as energy storage systems that can adapt to the surges and dips of solar and wind energy.
Companies, especially those in high-emitting industries such as manufacturing and construction, need to set clear and transparent, science-based net-zero and nature-positive targets in line with keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. The companies that have already done this should implement and publicly report on these targets.
Specifically, the steel and cement sectors — which, combined, contribute 15% to global annual carbon emissions — must step up and sign on to the Race to Zero, the United Nations-led campaign working with businesses, cities, regions, investors, and financial and educational institutions to commit to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest.
The IPCC argues that countries can still prevent temperatures from rising beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. But emissions have to peak by 2025, at the latest, and then fall by 43% by 2030.
No country is on track to reach this target, but all countries have the ability to do so and must update their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris climate agreement to reflect this reality. Then they have to take the necessary steps at home to achieve these goals.
That gets us to what has to happen on the political level. People worldwide have to demand bold climate action from their leaders and governments have to begin to view climate action from a global, rather than domestic, viewpoint because climate impacts that happen anywhere have repercussions everywhere.
Global solidarity depends on fair climate financing. In 2022, wealthy countries — especially the US, Australia, and Germany — have to fulfill their commitment to provide $100 billion in annual climate financing to low-income countries. To date, countries have only provided around $80 billion. The majority of this funding has been in the form of loans that have to be repaid. That’s hardly solidarity; true solidarity would mean grants, not loans. And as the impacts of climate change escalate, so, too, does the scale of global climate financing.
And ultimately, food security, nutrition, and livelihoods among the most marginalized populations must be prioritized, by directing significant climate adaptation resources to rural communities and smallholder farmers.
The planet is remarkably resilient. When harms are removed, wildlife thrives. The same principle applies to humanity. We can evolve beyond the current system and then learn to live within an altered tomorrow of increased climate risks.
In that future, people will have the means to avoid, manage, and overcome hurricanes, heat waves, droughts, and whatever else gets thrown their way.
You can join the End Extreme Poverty NOW — Our Future Can't Wait campaign by signing up as a Global Citizen (either here or by downloading the Global Citizen app) and joining us in taking climate action NOW.