Is Our Climate Changing Faster Than We Are?

One major talking point at this year’s COP was the recently released IPCC’s Global Warming Special Report warning, which indicated a short, 12-year timeline for humans to limit devastating climate change. The take home message of this report was clearly understood by the attendees of the COP: the time to make drastic changes is short and the list of repercussions for inaction is long. This short time scale is particularly daunting when considering that CO2 atmospheric concentrations are steadily climbing and showing no signs of slowing down (Figure 1). Three years after the “landmark” Paris Agreement, countries are not on track to meet their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, pledges which were already considered not ambitious enough to keep warming below the goal of 1.5° C. These concerns are exacerbated when countries like the United States, Russia, and Saudi Arabia refuse to endorse the validity of the IPCC Report and when the President of the United States expresses his intent to pull out of the Paris Agreement while prioritizing the resurrection of coal power. With all this information, it’s no wonder that people contemplate the possibility that climate change may actually cross over into the “devastating” threshold. If so, what happens then?

Figure 1. Reported atmospheric CO2 concentrations steadily rise over time

Experts at the conference discussed these exact matters and emphasized that the capacity to reduce the impacts of climate change is definitely real. If emissions were to drop to 0 today, warming would be kept well below 1.5° C. The real challenge, however, lies in the rate at which emissions will actually be reduced. Many have cited ineffective, slow moving governance and the inherent complexity of issues involving climate change (both of which were apparent during COP24 as meetings were frequently delayed because officials failed to come to consensus about even minor concerns).

Predictions of 3° C of warming were often used as a realistic expectation of what the planet will reach.  Discussions about a world that is 3° C warmer included the possibility of extensive wild fires, ecosystem collapses, food insecurity, droughts, flooded cities, and refugee crises. Now, I have heard the symptoms of climate change described many times. However, hearing phrases such as “the end of the world as we know it” had always been met with some degree of skepticism and ultimately confidence in mankind’s ability to control the situation with today’s knowledge and technology. This time, though, was different. Attending this conference and hearing the world’s experts in the climate movement speak with such seriousness while concurrently noting many experts’ focus on climate change adaptation, which implies the inevitability of change, got my attention and left me unnerved.

There was no denying the pervasive interest in quickly and drastically cutting emissions. Representatives from major corporations like Coca-Cola, Citigroup, and Exxon Mobil to name a few were present. These organizations were worried about how climate change will impact their supply chains and investments and were motivated to make changes in their business schemes that would help the situation. It was also encouraging to see participation at the COP from many young individuals, who were focused on getting involved in international policy or climate related protests. This leaves me hopeful that climate action will occur now that the profits of powerful corporations are under threat, there is a new generation of individuals passionate about climate change, and the planet as we know it is facing a pressing deadline.

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