Friday, December 3

It’s now or never: scientists warn that the time has come to settle scores for the planet | Climate change

TOt the end of the 60s sci-fi classic, The day the earth caught fire, the camera pans Daily express case room to a proof cover hanging on a wall. “Earth Saved,” yells the headline. The camera pans. “Earth Doomed” announces the test next to him.

The main printer seems puzzled. Which page will you be asked to select? We never find out, because the film ends without revealing the fate of our planet, whose rotation has been thrown out of control by simultaneous Soviet and American atomic bomb tests. All we know is that the fate of the Earth is at stake thanks to human stupidity.

Such a vision may be the stuff of popular entertainment, but it comes uncomfortably close to our own uncertain future, as highlighted last week by a Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which effectively announced a “code red” warning for our species. The unequivocal evidence showed that greenhouse gas emissions were propelling us into a dire and fiery future brought on by extreme climate change, he announced. Only urgent reductions in fossil fuel emissions can save us.

It was a view vividly endorsed by scientists, usually the most circumspect commentators on world events. “Our future climate could well turn into a kind of hell on Earth,” said Professor Tim Palmer of the University of Oxford. Or, as Professor Dave Reay, executive director of the Institute for Climate Change at the University of Edinburgh, put it: “This is not just another scientific report. This is hell and a big high tide. “

Certainly, the figures described in the report were stark and surprisingly emphatic compared to earlier, much more cautious offers from the IPCC. As it makes clear, humans have pumped about 2.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since 1850, creating concentrations of gas that have not been seen on Earth in the last 2 million years.

A water hose is empty for a volunteer fighting forest fires near the town of Pefki on the Greek island of Evia.
A water hose is empty for a volunteer fighting forest fires near the town of Pefki on the Greek island of Evia. Photograph: Angelos Tzortzinis / AFP / Getty Images

Heat waves and heavy rains that cause flooding have become more intense and frequent since the 1950s in most parts of the world, and climate change is now affecting every inhabited region on the planet. Drought is increasing in many places and it is more than 66% likely that the number of major hurricanes and typhoons has increased since the 1970s. “If there was still a need for proof that climate changes are caused by activities human beings, then this is the report that provides it, ”said Professor Corinne Le Quéré from the University of East Anglia.

And the consequences of humanity’s massive act of atmospheric interference are now clear: what’s hot today will get hotter tomorrow; extreme floods will be more frequent, wildfires more dangerous and deadly droughts more widespread. In short, things can only get worse.

In fact, by the end of the century they could become a threat to civilization if emissions are allowed to continue at the current rate. “That may seem like a long way to go, but there are millions of children already born who should be alive well into the 22nd century,” added Professor Jonathan Bamber of the University of Bristol, another author of the report.

In fact, they could become completely catastrophic with the occurrence of world-changing events, such as the extinction of forests across the continent or the collapse of the Antarctic ice sheets, says Professor Andrew Watson of the University of Edinburgh. “The IPCC report provides a comprehensive update on the knowledge on climate change, and that makes for a gloomy read. But he also points out that climate models do not include ‘low probability-high impact’ events, such as drastic changes in ocean circulation, which also become more likely the more the climate changes. These ‘known unknowns’ are even scarier. “

The new IPCC report is certainly a very different and uncompromising document compared to previous versions, as noted by meteorologist Keith Shine from the University of Reading. “I was very involved in the first IPCC assessment report in 1990. We were not even sure that the observed climate change was due to human activity. The IPCC now says the evidence is ‘unequivocal’. That means there is no hiding place for policy makers. “

The crucial point is that this report was agreed not only by scientists but also by government representatives on the committee, men and women who have made it clear that they are also convinced of the urgency of the situation. “They also see the direct link between greenhouse gas emissions and recent wildfires, floods, and other extreme weather events, and that makes it essential for their own governments to act,” said Lord Deben, chairman of the Climate Change Committee of the United Kingdom.

At the 2015 Paris climate meeting, those governments promised To try and maintain the temperature it rises well below 2 ° C, and no more than 1.5 ° C if possible, since pre-industrial times. The problem now is that the world has already warmed by almost 1.1 ° C, which means that only drastic reductions in emissions will prevent much more serious and intense global warming. It will be narrow. The most ambitious emissions scenario outlined by the IPCC offers less than a 50% chance of staying below that 1.5 ° C threshold.

Prospects for limiting global warming to 2 ° C are better, but will still require much larger reductions than nations have promised in the run-up to COP26, the UN climate summit to be held in Glasgow in November. “Clearly any hope that climate change might turn out ‘not as bad as expected’ was lost,” said Professor Rowan Sutton of the National Center for Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Reading. “It is happening now and it is happening very fast. Facing this crisis means taking urgent action ”.

However, that will not be an easy task. As Nick Starkey, policy director at the Royal Academy of Engineering, pointed out last week. “The UK is not on track to meet existing carbon targets and our 78% emission reduction target by 2035 will not be achieved without deep energy efficiency measures,” he said.

What is needed is “a broad vision of society”, a national plan that would be pushed forward to ensure the implementation of all the different policies, from transport to power generation and from home heating to agriculture, that will be necessary. to ensure that emissions are reduced as quickly as possible. “We need to implement policies across society, otherwise our goals will turn into empty promises,” said Joeri Rogelj, research director at the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London.

It is a suggestion endorsed by Lord Deben. “In the UK we need a new planning law to ensure that all local authorities take climate change into account every time they make a planning decision. Right now, they get absolutely no advice on how to run this business. ”Such processes would ensure that the small details of ensuring carbon emissions are controlled and mistakes, such as the recent granting of planning permission for a new mine of coal in Cumbria, not to be repeated, he added.

The San Francisco sky turns orange from smoke from the wildfires in September 2020.
The San Francisco sky turns orange from smoke from the wildfires in September 2020. Photograph: John G Mabanglo / EPA

However, it will take considerable and sustained effort for the nation to sustain those efforts. On Tuesday, national front pages were filled with images of burning Greek towns and lurid headlines. “PM: wake up with a red alert due to the climate crisis,” warned the Daily express; “As the doomsday report warns of apocalyptic climate change: can the UK lift the world out of the abyss?” Asked the Mail; while the Telegraph announced: “The UN warns about the ‘reality check’ of the climate.” Since many of these articles have gone to great lengths in the past to denigrate climate science and question the reality of global warming, these were radical announcements. It remains to be seen how long each post remains committed to science.

“The weather story was on the front page on Tuesday, but on Friday, three days later, it was barely mentioned,” added Professor Martin Siegert of Imperial College London. “However, this is the most important thing humanity must do in the next 30 years. It is going to change our lives, it is going to change the way we view ourselves on the planet. And if we don’t, we will fuel big problems for our children. But after three days it seemed that we had been forgotten even though this is something that takes decades of constant and persistent work. “

Siegert added that it had been estimated that investment levels equivalent to 1% of GDP are needed to ensure the country’s transition to zero net status. “However, we are currently spending about 0.01%… one hundredth of that estimated price. And this is also well below what the government is spending on things that will actually increase our emissions, such as airport expansion plans and the tens of billions it has promised in new road schemes, which will only make easier to drive and burn. more fossil fuel. “

These are all issues that the UK must resolve, as a matter of urgency, in the coming months, although the opening of the Cop26 conference in Glasgow will be an even more urgent event. At the meeting, which begins Nov. 1, delegates from more than 190 countries will come together to reach an agreement that will determine how hot life on Earth will get. In Paris in 2015, nations promised emissions cuts that must now be urgently updated or global temperatures will skyrocket to more than 2 ° C. Similarly, agreements will need to be reached on how to phase out coal-fired power plants as quickly as possible. possible, protect carbon dioxide-absorbing forests and agree to aid developing nations to help them survive the impacts of global warming.

It will go well and it is very likely that we will not know if the negotiators are successful until the last minutes of the Glasgow conference. In this way we will know the fate of the planet in November, exactly 60 years after the film premiere of The day the earth caught fire. Then we can get a better idea of ​​whether “Earth Saved” or “Earth Doomed” was the headline on the first page.

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