As it begins a new orbit around the Sun, Planet Earth has entered into another uncharted future. Climatologists anticipate a year of new record temperatures, scientists envision further advances in clean energy technologies, and green activists fear that governments’ actions will again fall short of what is needed to rein in the predictable atmospheric change. Meanwhile meteorologists, who by definition look at a short-term future, can’t help but prepare themselves for yet another step-up in weather unpredictability.
The 2018 climate change calendar does not fall short of interesting events, such as the grandiose ‘Cities and Climate Change Science Conference’ to be held in March in Edmonton, Canada, the world capital of climate-enemy tar sands. Not to mention the yearly UN Summit on climate change, which will be staged in November in Katowice, Poland, the European capital of dirty coal. Add a few hundred international and regional conferences and it’s clear the climatic debate will not run out of words. Action is the problem. Preliminary data suggest that global CO2 emissions in 2017 grew by around two per cent after being relatively flat for three years. This is not the expected trajectory for a world aiming at containing the mean temperature rise under the dangerous threshold of 2°C.
Why is it so risky? Because it can trigger non-linear changes in the atmospheric system. Since the Industrial Revolution we have witnessed a linear (and somewhat parallel) increase in CO2 concentrations and mean temperatures. Above a certain warming level, methane under thawing permafrost and warmer oceans may seep out and induce a non-linear acceleration towards bigger troubles. Nobody knows for certain if 2°C is that threshold. But would you bet a planet on it? The Precautionary Principle, successfully implemented by the UN with the ozone layer-saving Montreal Protocol, affirms the need to protect human life from harm when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk such as the 2°C warming. The future of climate change depends on a more widespread and passionate desire for precaution. We need to act before it is too late. Now would be the right time to begin.
This was published in the January 2018 edition of Geographical magazine.