As a possible apocalyptic scenario, climate change is sometimes ranked alongside, or even superior to, nuclear war in severity. Headlines tell us that the ever escalating concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will relentlessly push the temperature higher, unleashing all manner of dangers and adversity, threatening our way of life and harming Earth’s ecosystems. Sometimes it seems so terrifying that we are taken beyond the point of caring and prefer a blissful ignorance as to what awaits us.
For all the doom mongering, it is curious how rarely this striking account of the future is directly related to our own lives or that of future generations. I have two children under the age of ten; what will climate change mean to their futures, or the lives of their children? Obviously I am concerned as a parent, but more broadly what will climate change practically mean to us as individuals and as a society?
I’ve tried to look into this with an open mind and to use respected sources of information. It’s obvious that climate change and climate science generally are highly complex. There is a lot of information available and whilst it is tempting to wish for a simple one page summary, there are so many variables covering such a range of factors that concise overviews are in danger of being misleading.
The most important point in predicting how the climate may change is an estimate of how concentrations of greenhouses gases, the most well known of which is carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere may vary in the remaining decades of the twenty-first century. If matters continue as they are, with no reductions, the amount of greenhouse gases will increase over time. By contrast, even if all emissions of greenhouse gases stopped today, the existing levels in the atmosphere will still have some effect on global climate in the years to come.
As a UK citizen, my reading first took me to a report from our government, produced principally by its Met Office (Met here being short for Meteorological) entitled, “UK Climate Projections: Briefing report” from 2010. The Met Office in the UK is a credible authority on climate and the weather. The introduction from Professor Robert Watson, Chief Scientific Advisor, begins, “[T]hat the world’s climate is changing is irrefutable.” One of the observed trends in the report is that the temperature in central England has already increased by 1°C since the 1970s.
This summary looks at projections for 2080 which are based on what is called a “medium emissions scenario”. This term refers to a projection of how emissions of greenhouse gases will change in the future and the medium emissions scenario is one of economic growth coupled with a moderately reduced use of fossil fuels. It is a middle path between a higher level involving strong economic growth and a lower level in which significant reductions in the use of fossil fuels is achieved.
In this projection, by 2080 the temperature across all parts of the UK will increase, more so in summer than in winter and more in the south than the north. By that point, the mean summer temperature is projected to increase by 4.2°C in southern England. The figure quoted here is merely the central estimate in a range of values. This increase in temperature leads to more 10-day dry spells (without rain) throughout the UK especially in southern England and Wales.
Predictions of temperature increase of this sort provide a measure of the forthcoming changes but tell us little of the practical effect on our lives. My reading took me to another report from the Met Office entitled, “Climate: Observations, Projections and Impacts” from 2011 which contained more interpretation of the likely effects. It noted the additional deaths caused by heat waves and severe storms in the past, the implication being that if these become more frequent, more deaths will occur.
Chapter 3 of the report looks at impact projections of climate change, whilst noting the degree of uncertainty involved. Strikingly, whilst the UK is presently a country with few concerns about food security, the report suggests in the most severe of scenarios, climate change could affect crop yields, particularly in the south, and that this might, unless managed, lead to exposure to undernourishment. As the temperature increases and the number and length of dry spells grows, periods of drought and water stress will increase. The UK, in my experience, responds poorly to droughts (as a rainy nation, we’re simply not used to it) and I can only imagine the difficulties these might cause.
The increase in drought in the summer is accompanied by an increase of the risk of flooding in the winter, due to more rainfall. The UK has experienced a number of incidents of serious flooding in recent years and these are a disaster for those affected, with homes and possessions destroyed or damaged. The risk is enhanced for coastal areas due to higher sea levels.
The overall picture that emerged was one of a changing yearly cycle with more extreme weather episodes. The UK always seems to respond poorly to extreme events of this sort and so climate change looks like it would unleash a degree of chaos (and consequent expense) as a result. And these were predictions from a scenario involving a moderately reduced reliance on fossil fuels.
I was interested to see what research had been carried out on the implications of climate change in the USA and so, naturally, went to the USA’s Environmental Protection Agency’s website. My difficulty was that the temperature changes were all given in °F rather than °C!
Usefully, a section entitled “US Key Projections” set out some headlines that a layperson like myself could absorb. A temperature increase of a similar nature to that suggested in the UK was set out. One projection that caught my eye was that, “[C]limate models project that if global emissions of greenhouse gases continue to grow, summertime temperatures in the United States that ranked among the hottest 5% in 1950-1979 will occur at least 70% of the time by 2035-2064.” So, by the middle of this century, temperatures that would have been considered extremely hot during the middle of the twentieth century will be common unless the increase in greenhouse gases is halted.
With regard to precipitation, the EPA predicts that storm tracks in the USA will move northward and the strongest type of winter storms are expected to become stronger and more frequent. The amount of rainfall in heavy precipitation events is likely to increase in most regions. Northern areas of the country are predicted to become wetter and southern areas drier. As the ocean warms, the intensity of Atlantic hurricanes is likely to increase.
The EPA’s website has useful sections exploring the implications of climate change on different aspects of life in the USA. They state, for example, that, “[C]limate change may especially impact people who live in areas that are vulnerable to coastal storms, drought, and sea level rise or people who live in poverty, older adults, and immigrant communities.” Also from the USA, NASA has reported that February 2017 was the second warmest February on record in 137 years and that January 2017 was the third warmest January.
Turning to the global scale, the United Nations declared recently that 2016 was the hottest year on record, surpassing the exceptionally high temperatures of 2015. According to the UN, over the 130 year period leading up to 2012, global temperatures increased by 0.85°C. For each one degree of temperature increase, grain yields decline by about 5 per cent. Wheat, maize and other major crops have experienced significant yield reductions at the global levels during the period 1981 to 2002 due to a warmer climate, a trend that is likely to continue as the temperature rises.
The UN predicts temperature increases by the end of the twenty-first century of a similar nature to that by the EPA and the UK’s Met Office. At the global scale, the UN stresses that climate change will disrupt “national economies, costing people, communities and countries dearly today and even more tomorrow”. It can also exacerbate threats such as food and water scarcity, as is already being seen, which can lead to conflict. This could add to international tensions as nation states respond to these challenges.
This overview of predictions and implications lead me to realise that my curiosity about how, precisely and in detail, climate change would affect the lives of my great-grandchildren (if I am fortunate enough to have any) would only in reality be able to grasp a general outline of the parameters involved. Yet that was enough to get a sense of the profound and swift changes the world might undergo during the lives of my immediate descendants – and my life too of course.
Though wherever I looked there were cautious words about how, even if all emissions stopped now, the climate will be distorted for centuries to come, there were still encouragements about how, at this late hour, plans could be made and action taken to ward away the direst futures. Poorer countries can be helped, in the UN’s words, to “leapfrog to cleaner, more resilient economies.” The challenge of climate change threatens all peoples and could be the spur to more international cooperation. Time is short though and the need is pressing and more urgent as ever year goes by. Our children and the children that follow them, the dream and promise of our future generations, need us to get to work right now, today, in doing as much as we can to sort this out as individuals, countries and a world.