Nowhere is the divide between members of the scientific community and general public more apparent than in an individual’s interpretation of the difference between climate and weather – the lack of distinction between compiled data and anecdotal evidence has been known to anger many a scientist, and dramatic calls of apocalyptic consequence breed despair and snorts of derision amongst the general public. Governments across the globe recognize, seeing the direct consequences and risks of sea-level rise to seaside populations centres and degrading air quality in urban areas, that action is required.
Yet it is difficult to effectively claim the societal response to a changing climate has been appropriate – politicization surrounding exactly which party is responsible for warming has clouded a debate surrounding action in the general community, highlighting the divide between leaders and the people they lead. The majority of blame for inaction tends to be dealt to “skeptics” – individuals who claim to believe that climate science has been unable to reach a definitive conclusion regarding the extent anthropogenic GHG emissions have lead to rises in global temperature. This is the reality of progress – the purpose of scientific inquiry is to create testable hypothesis that inform us of the realities of the physical world in which we inhabit. It is a human endeavour, meaning mistakes are common. Nevertheless, the role of discovery in our society is to inform decision-making and progress – not to provide evidence in an effort to disprove personal beliefs.
An equal danger exists in climate catastrophizing. Public figures have long positioned climate change as an omnipresent existential threat capable of creating a non-habitable world within a single generation in a well-meaning effort to spur action. But it has, in large part, has had the opposite effect – climate researchers and activists commonly suffer from PTSD and depression-like symptoms. Industry members bicker whether solutions like natural gas, which has lowered carbon emissions in the United States more than all renewable energy investments combined, should even be considered given their non-carbon neutrality. Individuals feel overwhelmed by the scale and scope of issues presented, and are therefore numbed into inaction – after all, what can one person do against an entire planet?
With skeptics touting falsehoods and catastrophists accepting nothing less than 100% mitigation, the most commonly sourced reports paint a more realistic picture. The Assessment Report, a gold standard created by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and released in 2014, estimates approximately 3-4 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100, with a corresponding seal-level rise of 0.6 metres.
The difficulty in effectively predicting the true impacts of climate change are that, beyond the understanding that increased levels of GHGs will result in greater heat being trapped in our atmosphere, scientists can only estimate. The rate of gas accumulation in the atmosphere, the corresponding warming that volume of gases will cause, the effect of that warming upon natural and man-made systems – each of these answers can only be estimated. These factors are predicted using Relative Concentration Pathways (RCPs), projection pathways which provide four separate estimates of increases in atmospheric radiative forcing over the next century (radiative forcing refers to the amount of sunlight absorbed by the atmosphere versus reflected into space; GHGs molecules reflect high volumes of heat onto the earth, thus increasing radiative forcing and make the world warmer).
Each pathway predicts a different level of human action taken to reduce total pollutants emitted over the next 100 years, with the most and least optimistic paths seeing a divide of impacts by a factor of almost 6. The most extreme of these factors, pointing to no action taken to reduce emissions, still sees only an 0.8 metre increase in sea level rise over the next century (slightly higher than predicted), with a corresponding 12 degree increase in temperature – but by 2300.
Further, economists can now produce Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs), which attempt to convert the direct and indirect impacts of climate change into tangible costs. Such models can point to the conclusion that a 3-4 degree increase in global temperature will cost approximately 1-4% of global GDP in 2100, approximated at $20T USD in shared burden across the world (a cost, worth noting, that exceeds the entire GDP of the United States in 2016). Equally of note – this same model fails to see economic growth decrease by more than 0.05% over the next century in any single year, which is unlikely, as climate change impacts will occur gradually throughout the century and economic fluctuations are inevitable.
No economic model can effectively integrate non-tangible value, like community ties to land or the moral obligation of our species to preserve the planet – but nevertheless, the results of environmental and economic models point to the unveiling of real but manageable costs over the next century. Viewing the costs of climate change in grander context, applying appropriate time-scales to forecasting and segmenting models based on assumptions allow for the affirmation of the facts that climate change both exists and can be adapted to.
Humanity has an incredible capacity to overcome the challenges of our natural world – we have cured disease, fed the planet and created monuments to the greatest achievements of our species. There is no reason to believe we cannot adapt to a warmer world. But it does involve a transition in the way we view climate change – instead of mitigating future impacts, greater incentive should be given to adapting our current systems to inevitable transformations. The impacts of carbon already built up in Earth’s atmosphere will not be fully felt for the next 50 years, meaning irreversible damage has already been done. It is our responsibility to now ensure that we create a world well suited to our new reality.
Claims of positive feedback loops, resulting in cascading climate effects, remain unverifiable over the timeframes in which they are estimated. But in this apocalyptic vision of the future, investment into improved water management systems, more resilient and accessible energy infrastructure and public health practices will pay higher dividends still, as will spending on effective physical and digital infrastructure systems, and innovations not yet dreamed up by generations to come.
So have kids, because hey – someone is going to need to save the rest of us.