Is the world ending in 11 years?
The short answer is no. If so, what are these dire warnings about the urgency of the climate crisis about?
Well, they are that. They are warnings, based on sound scientific findings, that climate change will get so much worse if we do not act about it with both intensity and urgency. In other words, according to science, we must change things radically and we must do it quickly.
For context, I am of course referring to the special report issued last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It is a report based on thousands of peer-reviewed scientific studies done by thousands upon thousands of scientists working independently around the world.
In the report, the scientists found that we have approximately 11 years to dramatically shift the way society operates in order to avert what others have described as a “climate catastrophe”. (I put “climate catastrophe” in quotes because for millions around the world, the current level of warming—about 1 degree Celsius—has already had some catastrophic consequences.)
The IPCC deadline is based on the following elements. First, it is based on the differences in impact between a warming of 1.5 degrees versus 2 degrees. (2 degrees of warming is the target set by the Paris Agreement.) Second, it considers the level of change that society must undergo in order to limit warming to only 1.5 degrees. (Note that an increase in warming from the current 1 degree to 1.5 degrees is already accepted as inevitable.) Third, it is based on the amount of time left for us to make those changes, which is where the 11-year mark comes from.
Each of these elements are worth looking at more closely.
First, the differences in impact between 1.5 degrees of warming versus 2 degrees. Much has been written about these differences. Just to give one striking example here, there will be 10 million more people who will be flooded to to rising sea levels when warming is 2 degrees compared to 1.5 degrees.
Another difference that I find personally distressing is the impact on coral reefs, an ecosystem which I love. In a world with 1.5 degrees of warming, coral damage is expected to be between 70 and 90 percent. With 2 degrees of warming, the number is going to be 99 percent.
The list of differences go on, but they all point to one thing: a warming of 1.5 degrees is worse than what we are experiencing right now, but it is so much more preferable to 2 degrees.
However, one thing that I think is not stressed enough when comparing 1.5 degrees with 2 degrees is the concept of tipping points.
A tipping point is the point beyond which events become far less predictable and controllable. In the context of climate change, a tipping point is a point beyond which the impacts of climate change are not only worse, they are very hard to determine exactly.
2 degrees of warming will greatly increase the likelihood of us going past several tipping points. Going past these tipping points might take us into a world that is “systematically uninsurable”. These are the words of Christiana Figueres, the former UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Director, who said that insurance companies cannot insure things in a world that has passed the tipping point.
Going to the second element, according to the IPCC, report drastic changes must be made in order to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. The words “unprecedented” and “transformational” have been used a lot in describing the changes needed.
In terms of hard numbers, the change needed is a reduction in carbon emissions to 45 percent by 2030 and to near zero by 2050. 11 years into 2030, we are not even close to approaching the 45 percent target.
As urgent and as scientific as this deadline might be, it is not a hard deadline. What that means is that everything we do to effectively reduce carbon emissions will improve the situation, from replacing coal-fired power plants with renewable energy sources to decreasing the number of cars on the road by investing in public mass transit, and from decreasing emissions from agriculture by consuming less meat to increasing the number of native trees in the forest through tree-planting activities.
The IPCC report does not give us black and white options, with apocalypse on one hand and a happy ending in another. Rather, by presenting the science-based best-case scenario, it encourages us to aim for the greatest reduction in carbon emissions in the soonest possible time.
But while it is not all or nothing, it is now or never. The future of our descendants cannot wait any longer.