The science is clear: It is understood that we are facing an unprecedented global emergency. We are in a life or death situation of our own making. We must act now.
We are in the middle of the sixth extinction. Species are going extinct at 1,000 times the baseline rate ,. Not since the dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago has there been a mass extinction event. Three-quarters of life on Earth disappeared then, and in a massive stroke of luck for humans, this extinction event allowed mammals to flourish. The dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Humans, on the other hand, have only been around for a few hundred thousand years.
In that time, and, more importantly, since the industrial revolution, humans have impacted the planet massively. We have filled the oceans with plastic, killed off most of the large megafauna, cut down vast forests and polluted the rivers, air and oceans.
Our World Today
Concentrations of methane and nitrous oxide have followed similar trends. Greenhouse gases (GHGs) that accumulate in the atmosphere trap excess energy and cause the atmosphere to warm. This is known as the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect is what has kept Earth’s temperature stable for billions of years. But when we burn ancient biomass for fuel, we load the atmosphere with GHGs, and these are the cause of our warming world. The world is 1.10℃ warmer today than in 1850. This may not sound a lot, but that is the global average. In some places, the temperature has risen by more than twice that amount. In the past 20 years, the GHG concentration has risen by 30 ppm. To put that in perspective, in the 2,000 years before that, the rate of increase was less than 30 ppm￼. Human activities are radically altering Earth’s atmosphere. The oceans have absorbed 90% of this excess heat, and the energy absorbed by them equals an astonishing Hiroshima-sized bomb every second for 150 years. Try to imagine the scale of what we have done: one Hiroshima-sized atomic bomb every single second of every single minute of every single hour of every single day for 150 years. And it gets worse: the warming has increased to between 3 and 6 Hiroshima-sized bombs per second. Let that sink in for a while.
Storms are becoming stronger and more frequent. Mozambique was hit by two storms in early 2019. More than 1,000 people were killed and 400,000 were left homeless. The stronger storm to hit Mozambique, Cyclone Idai, is considered the strongest storm to ever hit the southern hemisphere. Hurricane Dorian rammed into the Bahamas just a year after Puerto Rico suffered massive damage from Hurricane Maria. In 2018, Typhoon Jebi barrelled into Japan and caused $12.6 billion of damage and more than 10 fatalities. This was the strongest storm to hit Japan in 25 years. Typhoon Hagibis struck Japan in October 2019, killing 95. This was followed by flooding in Chiba, which claimed the lives of 10 more people.
With warmer temperatures comes the increased threat of wildfires. The fire season is becoming longer as the ground dries out quicker every year. These fires produce more carbon dioxide, and this acts as another positive feedback loop as it warms the planet and causes even more fires. Whilst wildfires are common in many places, they are becoming more frequent and burning wider areas as the ground becomes drier. The Amazon saw record burning in 2019, and whilst this wasn’t caused by climate change, it will have a great impact on the climate. The fires here were to turn rainforest into grazing lands for animal agriculture. In Africa, fires raged through forests. Australia is seeing earlier than expected spring fires, and 2.5 million people were without power in California in late October 2019 as thousands of buildings were lost to flames.
These fires are even occurring in Alaska and Siberia. These fires lead to another positive feedback loop as ash from the fires settles on Arctic ice. This ice becomes darker and absorbs more heat, which leads to melting. Less heat is reflected and the planet becomes warmer, which leads to more wildfires and the cycle continues without human intervention.
Another result of our warmer climate is droughts. Warmer air causes more water to evaporate and this is one of the biggest concerns to humanity. Australia saw 11% less rainfall than average in 2018 and September saw the second-lowest month for rainfall since records began. In 2018, Australia saw its third-warmest year on record, after 2013 and 2005. Droughts were also recorded across 39.6% of the contiguous United States in February 2018. Billions of dollars’ worth of crops were destroyed.
In rich countries like the USA, temporary droughts can be managed, but south of the border, countries aren’t as able to cope. In El Salvador, a 2018 drought destroyed 13.35% of the first sown corn. 20,303 hectares were affected in all. Guatemala has also experienced loss of corn due to drought conditions and in Honduras, some areas only have water available four days a week. Nicaragua also reported lost crops and livestock in 2018, and Costa Rican farmers are warning that the country will have to import rice due to the decrease in planting area. Almost 300,000 Costa Ricans suffer from water shortages.
The situation is even direr in Africa. Almost 7 million people are severely food insecure in South Sudan with 21,000 living in famine conditions. This is the most in the country’s history. 860,000 people in South Sudan are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition in 2019. Somalia also faces an uncertain future with 1.7 million people facing acute food insecurity. This is double the number in 2017 and is expected to increase. Around 1 million children in Somalia are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition this year.
South Asia is facing massive water shortages as water runs dry in at least 21 cities including New Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad. 100 million people in these cities are predicted to run out of water by 2020. All around the world, from Morocco to Iraq and from Spain to Chile, water resources are going dry.
Paradoxically, many areas, and often the same areas, are being hit by extreme flooding. Millions were affected in Nepal and India in July 2019 with tens of thousands of people displaced. Australia was also hit by massive rains, and crocodiles and snakes were seen being swept along with floodwaters. From January to May 2019, the USA suffered its wettest period on record. This delayed the planting of many important crops. If this becomes the normal, food security will certainly be threatened.
Japan is especially prone to heavy flooding, and the resulting mudslides have proven deadly in recent years. More than 200 people lost their lives in western Japan in 2018. These were the worst floods for almost 40 years.
So far, we have looked at the situation around the world today. We have seen the extreme weather events, the droughts, the wildfires, the floods and the weather-caused migrations. What of our combined future?
In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that we must cut emissions from 2010 levels by 45% by 2030 to have any chance of staying within a temperature rise of 1.5℃ since the Industrial Revolution. The carbon budget we have does not allow us to burn much more fossil fuels or we will no longer be able to prevent runaway climate change. On our present trajectory, having already emitted almost 38 GT of (GHGs) and growing, we have only until 2030 before we exceed the 420 GT CO2 limit to stay within 1.5℃. And that only gives us a 66% chance of doing so. If we don’t meet this target and continue on our current path. then the probability of successfully staying within 1.5℃ drops with every GT of carbon emitted. If we emit 580 GT CO2, then our chances drop to only 50–50. The question we should ask here is would we put our children on a plane with only a 66% chance of landing? 50%? Less? We all know the answer to this question, but that is exactly what we are doing by continuing business as usual.
These are some of the impacts we will see in a 2.0℃ warmer world compared to those at 1.5℃. Twice as many people will be exposed to water scarcity, 1.7 times more people will be impacted by floods, 60 million more people will face drought conditions, the extra 10 cm of extra sea level rise will impact 145 million people. The amount of Arctic sea ice will be 10 times less in summer, 99% of coral will disappear, 50% more habitat will be lost, twice as many invertebrates will become extinct and 37% of the world’s population will be exposed to extreme heat days. The question we have to ask ourselves is are we okay with this? If the answer is no, then we must act immediately to prevent it from happening.
Let’s look at the chaos this lack of action will unleash on our planet. With our current policies, we are heading for a 3.0–3.4℃ warmer world by 2100. Just imagine what this will look like. The storms, floods, wildfires and floods we are witnessing at just 1.0℃ of warming multiplied. A report by Earth League researchers states we have a 10% chance of the temperature rise exceeding 6℃. Is this the world we want our children and grandchildren to inhabit? Japan may be 4.6℃ hotter by 2100.
The Arctic is an area of great importance in our struggle against cataclysmic climate change. Its ice does not affect sea level change as it is floating ice, but it does affect global temperatures through the feedback loop of melting ice opening up the darker sea to absorb more heat and kicking off a warming cycle. The Arctic has been warming since the 1960s but from the 1990s onwards, that warming has speeded up. The temperature in the Arctic has been erratic in 2019. The temperatures are off the scale compared to the norm. And you can see how the temperature rise is directly affecting the reduction in sea ice. This is not the scariest feedback loop that has scientists alarmed. A much scarier aspect of our current situation is what scientists call the ‘carbon bomb’. This refers to the permafrost in the Arctic Circle. This is land that has been frozen for millennia. Under the permafrost is stored tons and tons of methane, 40 times as much as was emitted in 2018 to be more precise, and roughly twice as much as humans have emitted in our history. While we know fairly accurately how much humans are emitting and what temperature increase that will cause, the ‘carbon bomb’ is difficult to predict. The permafrost is thawing though, and much faster than scientists predicted. This positive feedback loop could end any hopes we have of keeping temperatures stable. As methane is emitted, this raises the temperature, and the increased temperature in turn thaws more permafrost. which releases more methane and the cycle continues without human interference. This will result in what is known as ‘runaway’ climate change. We need to be very aware of this potential warming and it is not included in any IPCC reports. The worrying news is that the permafrost is thawing 70 years earlier than scientists expected.
When it comes to sea level rise, there are two areas of particular concern: Greenland and Antarctica. The above photo was taken in June 2019 and shows meltwater on top of ice. Again, this water absorbs more heat and in turn melts more ice and the cycle continues. Greenland was affected by Europe’s record-breaking heatwave and it recorded its own record on July 29 and 30, 2019. From the graph, you can see how much ice has been lost in Greenland compared to the 1981–2010 average. The amount of ice lost to melting has increased rapidly since 2010 and shows no sign of slowing down due to the record heatwaves we are seeing. If this continues and all the ice is lost, we will experience a sea level rise of 7 m globally.
The largest area of ice on our planet is in the Antarctic. Scientists thought the ice here would be stable for a long time until they discovered that the melting in the last 5 years has been three times as fast as it was before. This current rate of melting could add 25 cm to the sea level rise by 2070 and could lead to the entire West Antarctic ice sheet disappearing. This would lead to a sea level rise of 5 m, which would flood most coastal cities. The feedback loop would then kick in and the warmer waters and atmosphere would in turn melt the East Antarctic ice sheet, resulting in a sea level rise of 60 m.
Erosion and sea level rise are already displacing hundreds of thousands of people a year, though our media gives it little attention. These numbers will seem like small change by 2100, when a staggering 20% of our 10 billion population are expected to be displaced by sea level rise. Already, Europe and the USA are seeing tensions rise with just a few million people on the move. How will the world of our grandchildren cope with 2 billion humans looking for a new place to live?
Temperatures are on course to rise well over 3℃ by the end of the century. This is without factoring in the carbon bomb in the Arctic. That could possibly double that figure. At just 3℃ of warming, scientists predict that major cities like New York, Miami, Shanghai and even London will go underwater.
Asia will be worst hit, with Tokyo facing annual flooding by 2050. Kumamoto faces being submerged every year, Hiroshima will be completely inundated and Nagoya’s citizens face a very difficult future. Osaka, Hong Kong and Shanghai are among those with the highest populations to be affected. Most Japanese live on the crowded 30,000 km coastline, and this coastline is about to be redrawn. In the figure you can see Osaka today and Osaka at 3℃ of warming. Other cities like Nagoya, Tokyo, Sendai, Kumamoto, Nagasaki, Fukuoka and Hiroshima will also be inundated by rising seas. At a sea level rise of just 1 m, Japan will lose 90.3% of its beaches. Sea levels are expected to rise by at least 2 m by 2100 and 46% of Japanese will be affected. You can see from the map that Japan will be severely hit at just 2℃ of warming. We will likely hit 2℃ of warming by mid-century. 47% of industrial output is at risk and over $1 trillion in assets will be vulnerable. Japan is part of a group of countries than can expect to see sea level rise of between 10 and 20% higher than the global average. You can see from the map how Tokyo will be impacted at 2℃ and 4℃ of warming.
We all know how hot and humid it gets in Japan during the summer months. It’s not uncommon to see days with 90%+ humidity and temperatures close to 40℃. In 2018, 1,032 people perished in the heatwave that swept the country. What will happen if the temperature rises and humidity does too? As you can see from the above chart, the higher the humidity, the greater the effect on the human body. It has been predicted that increases in humidity will occur as a result of global warming. The elderly and young are more at risk, and the temperature and humidity will be deadly at lower relative humidity for these groups. These temperatures will make it extremely difficult to work outdoors.
Another effect of a warming planet is that more moisture is evaporated. This is already resulting in droughts all across our planet, from Australia to Sudan, and Somalia to California. Today, around 40% of the global population is affected by water scarcity and by 2030, 700 million people will be forced to leave their homes because of drought. The maps below show the current and future water stress in some parts of the world.
Within 5 years, much of India will face water scarcity. Pakistan faces a similar situation. A lack of food and water will likely exacerbate tensions between these two nuclear-armed neighbors. The problem of water scarcity is not limited to South Asia. Iraq, which is already suffering after two US-led wars, a decade of US-led sanctions and terrorist violence, will see water stress double in many areas. Likewise, Iran, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia will see water stress increase significantly. There is enormous tension in these countries already, but with added drought and a lack of food, tensions are likely to rise dramatically.
North Africa will also be badly affected by drought with Morocco hit hardest, but Algeria and Libya are also expected to see water stress increase by 1.4 times. These countries are stopping points on many refugees’ journeys from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe, but water shortages and food insecurity may also lead to people from these countries heading across the Mediterranean in search of safety. The closest route is across the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain. Unfortunately, Spain will also be suffering from a lack of water with most of the country expected to be 1.4 times more water stressed by 2040.
Japan might not suffer from these drought-like conditions, although Tokyo is one of 11 cities projected to run out of water in the coming decades, largely due to Tokyo’s rainfall coming in just 4 months of the year. The largest problem for Japan is food insecurity. Like many developed countries, Japan’s self-sufficiency has been decreasing sharply over the last 50 years. In 2018, due to the climate-caused storms that ravaged the country, Japan relied on other countries for 63% of its calorific intake. When other countries are affected by drought and can no longer guarantee food for their populations, they will be unable to export food. This could lead to a huge shortfall in the amount of food Japan is able to import. As we have seen, these water shortages will begin in the next decade.
One area where Japan will be hit hard is heavier rainfall. This will increase in strength and frequency in the coming years. Japan is projected to see an increase in mean precipitation by more than 10% this century with summer rainfall expected to rise by 17 to 19%. Hokkaido will see an increase in heavy rain events, and typhoons will also increase in severity and frequency. More rainfall will lead to more mudslides like those which have killed dozens in the past 5 years. This increase in rainfall and typhoon strength is due to warming oceans. Warmer oceans lead to more evaporation and more moisture in the atmosphere, which leads to more rainfall. Since 1990, typhoons which have hit East and South East Asia have intensified by 12–15%. The number of the larger category 4 and 5 storms has also doubled in that period, and in some places tripled. Their destructive power has also increased by 50%. Metropolises across Asia can expect to see super-strength typhoons barrel through, raising infrastructure losses from $3 trillion in 2005 to $35 trillion in 2070.
As you can see, Japan is at the forefront of the climate crisis. Many Japanese think this is a global problem, and not a problem they need to worry about. A 2009 study found 23.8% of Japanese respondents thought the environment was the world’s biggest problem, but only 2.5% of those considered it to be Japan’s biggest issue. That is not the case. Japan scored second globally on the overall natural hazard list, and third on the single natural hazard list.
The climate crisis is part of a wider ecological problem including the sixth mass extinction. Human actions since 1970 have led to the deaths of 60% of animal populations. This is largely due to loss of habitat and the use of pesticides and other chemicals. By the middle of this century, scientists predict half of all known species could go extinct.
Depending on the number of species on our planet, species loss is believed to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times the natural extinction rate. If there are 2 million different species on Earth, then we are witnessing between 200 and 2,000 extinctions per year. If there are, as many predict, 100 million different species, then we are losing between 10,000 and 100,000 species per year. The high end of that figure means we are losing 273 species a day.
We are all aware of the plight of tigers, polar bears, pandas and whales, but these are just the most visible losses. The world will be a terribly sad place without them. We have lived side by side with them since the dawn of our species. We have grown up with them. Their names are among the first things we say as children. We learn to draw them before drawing humans. They are part of us. However, from a pragmatic perspective, it is the smaller and less attractive creatures that humans will miss most.
Out of the 100 crop species that provide us with 90% of our food, 35% are pollinated by bees, birds and bats. Due to human activity, including our excessive use of pesticides and insecticides, bee, bird and bat populations are declining rapidly. Honeybees alone pollinate around $170 billion worth of crops worldwide. From April 1, 2018 to April 1, 2019, the managed bee population fell by 40.7%. Some areas have seen 90% declines.
Insects are also going quietly extinct. 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered. This extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. Insect populations are declining at an astonishing 2.5% a year. They could vanish from the face of Earth this century at these rates.
The soil under our feet is dying too. Thirty soccer fields of soil are lost every minute, largely due to intensive farming. It takes 1,000 years to generate 3 cm of topsoil, and all the world’s topsoil could be gone by 2074. Earthworms play an important part in generating topsoil as their faeces enrich the soil, and shallow-dwelling earthworms open pathways for air and water. Unfortunately, earthworms are slowly disappearing from the soil under our farmland after excessive use. 42% of fields in England now have a scarcity or absence of surface-dwelling and deep-burrowing earthworms.
“Climate change poses strategically significant risks to U.S. national security, directly impacting our critical infrastructure and increasing the likelihood of humanitarian disasters, state failure and conflict.”
A further Pentagon report in 2019 claimed that the US military could collapse within 20 years due to climate change. The report, titled ‘Implications of Climate Change for the U.S. Army’, stated that global starvation, war, disease, drought and a fragile power grid could have cascading, devastating effects.
What Al Gore called the ‘Inconvenient Truth’ that has been laid out before us here is frightening. We are right to be frightened. After coming to terms with our alarming predicament, fear and anxiety are natural responses. This fear has been termed eco-anxiety. But I’m not here today to send you into a wild depression. There is no point in being depressed. I’m here today to give you an opportunity to stop these things from happening. If you look at the titles of these reports, you will see the use of ‘could’ and ‘if’. These reports are not saying that there is going to be societal breakdown. They are warning us that unless we change course, this will be our future.
Our elected officials have been complacent at best, and complicit in the possible deaths of hundreds of millions and then billions at worst. The number of people who will die from the climate crisis and ecological breakdown will dwarf the number of people Stalin, Hitler or Mao killed. We are looking at the possible extinction of the majority of species on the planet, including our own. Are we going to stand silent as our governments and corporations continue to push us over this ecological cliff face? Or, are we going to rise up peacefully and demand that they change course?