A chink of hope in the climate crisis

Outdoor Living

BLUE SKIES AHEAD? Climate disaster could be curtailed within a couple of decades if net zero emissions are reached, say scientists.

Nature and rewilding

Pat Fahy

The year 2019 was an important one for climate activism, with continuous media coverage mirroring the concern and public outcry at Government inaction. However, as far as I could determine, by year end very little progress was being made to allay any climate anxiety.  
Increasingly, when you hear about climate change, it’s a numbers game, all sorts of different numbers being bandied about – so many numbers that in the end people start to zone out. But there is one number we hear again and again, and that number is 1.5 degrees Celsius.
It’s the upper limit of global warming that the world can just about tolerate. In order to keep temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius we need to meet ambitious fossil-fuel reduction targets by 2030, and this is worrying.
Last year, 2020, saw record amounts of burning in the Amazon aided by unusually dry weather and devastating wildfires in California, Siberia, Paraguay, Bolivia and Australia. It was a record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season too, with 30 named hurricanes to date. The year 2020 was also the second hottest year on record. This is coinciding with the least amount of ice cover in the Arctic since records began in the 1970s.
There are serious implications for our coastlines through sea rise and increased risk of flooding. The looming impacts of climate change are grave. It’s no wonder I hear some opine  that it’s all too late to do much to save the planet from catastrophic climate change.
In a year stuffed with disasters, it wasn’t easy then to see the arrival of a most unlikely prophecy. For climate change, this is a turning point, and I’m happy to report a turning point for the better that should be shared and celebrated.
More recent understandings of the implications of getting to net-zero emissions are giving hope that the warming could be more swiftly curtailed. Instead of an apocalyptic scenario where we have only a few decades to meet targets or it’s the end of civilisation as we know it, these insights are giving us more time. It turns out that things like low clouds over the Antarctic Ocean reflecting sunlight will steadily slow the warming for centuries, giving technology a chance to catch up. Added to this, more than 100 countries have pledged to get to a net-zero carbon target by 2050.
Should this be achieved globally, said Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann, ‘surface temperatures stop warming and warming stabilizes within a couple decades’. “What this really means is that our actions have a direct and immediate impact on surface warming,” he recently told The Guardian. It gives us a chance, and it means that the amount of warming which happens this century and beyond is up to us.
An extra degree in a few hundred years is far less damaging than a degree in a few decades, but we still need to reduce emissions as fast as possible.  Every 0.1 degree of global Warming matters. We stand at a 1.1°C global temperature rise at the moment, and already we are seeing the negative impact it is having. At least now there is more than hope for the future of the only planet we’ve got.

Pat Fahy is Biodiversity Officer with Westport Tidy Towns.