Ever since the industrial revolution, humans have burned large amounts of fossil fuels to meet the growing energy consumption brought about by global industrialization. These industrial activities release gigatons of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, furthering the greenhouse effect that warms our planet and fuels climate change.
An uninhabitable earth
As countries continue to burn fuels and contribute to anthropogenic or human-caused climate change, climate scientist and oceanographer Josie Mahony warns of a future where extreme climatic and weather phenomena become the norm.
This would mean a drastic uptick in the number of heatwaves, wildfires, droughts, and floods. Gradual events such as sea-level rise are also expected to trigger migration away from the coastal regions.
“East Africa, for the last few years, have (sic) gotten strong tropical storms and that never used to really be a thing…they are starting to get cyclones that are much more powerful,” Mahony comments, alluding to the intensification of weather events today that may still get worse over the coming years.
Similar to the situation in East Africa, Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center Geologist Karina Peggau mentions the winter storm that plunged temperatures in Texas last February.
This winter storm led to the coldest recorded temperatures in the state in 30 years and caused widespread power outages due to failures in Texas’ power infrastructure. She notes that we all will soon experience jarring climate conditions and that these events are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what climate change has in store.
The sixth mass extinction
Many of our systems and infrastructures are predicated on the idea that nature is a benign and regular provider of the conditions we need to thrive as a species.
As a result, humans continue to exploit natural resources. This resource extraction gravely affects biodiversity and, according to Mahony, is driving extinction rates in vulnerable ecosystems a thousand times higher than in the 20th century.
Peggau contends that 10 million hectares of land are destroyed annually, resulting in habitat loss which has led to the extinction of 30,000 wildlife species, with animal extinction mostly caused by deforestation and land degradation.
Although there have been commitments to reduce deforestation by governments all over the world, the rates of habitat loss are increasing. “A lot of countries fell short of that commitment [to reduce deforestation] between 2015 to 2020,” Peggau comments, connoting that countries are shirking their responsibility to restore biodiversity.
With continued deforestation and land degradation, humanity risks gambling the existence of all species. Ludwig Federigan, the representative of Climate Change Commission PH, explains that overconsumption of natural resources contributes to climate change and pollution, exhausting natural systems.
Climate change has also brought precarity to coral reefs, dubbed “the rainforests of the sea.” “[Corals] often have a temperature limit [depending on their species]. If they are exposed to a temperature above [a certain] level for an extended period of time, then they’ll bleach,” Mahony elucidates. This bleaching can drive the destruction of coral reefs and lead to the end of more than 25 percent of marine life.
Additionally, global temperatures are connected to rising sea levels, which have been increasing by 0.13 inches annually, further threatening to bring parts of coastal nations underwater.
There may only be three decades before 30 to 40 million people may be forced to migrate away from coastlines due to sea-level rise in the Philippines, Federigan warns. The effects of sea-level rise can range from habitat loss to contamination of agricultural soil with salt water, which can be devastating.
Furthermore, saltwater creeping into the freshwater systems destabilizes the salinity of agricultural land, leading to wilted and damaged crops, which impoverished farmers and families rely on. “[Agricultural land is] turning into a swampy marshland,” Mahony comments. She warns that many people can lose their “land and their livelihood,” as sea levels rise.
On a similar note, Federigan discusses the link between climate change and drought. Speaking of the unusually warm temperatures of 2020 he notes,“It is very unusual that even in a La Niña year, global temperatures increased.”
Continuing our current course
The amount of fossil fuels humans burn has pushed past the limits of what the atmosphere can take. Simply eliminating carbon emissions, however, is not feasible given that the growth of the global economy relies heavily on coal, gas, and oil.
“How can we keep the power on in hospitals? How [can] we [drive or travel] to see family in other cities?” raises Mahony as she reasons that there is no easy solution to tackle this creeping catastrophe.
“No human is just set out to destroy [the planet],” she says, adding,“This is only a side effect of humans trying to survive.” Unfortunately, this “side effect” is happening at such an unprecedented rate that extreme consequences are already on the lock.
Taking the first step
As a sense of urgency spurs us to act on climate change, many international accords have been introduced, such as the Paris Climate Agreement (PCA). Established in 2015, the PCA joins 197 countries in a global movement to address climate change in the hopes of capping the planet’s temperature rise at two degrees Celsius before the year 2050. This commitment between nations can provide a gateway to sustainable development as carbon emission rates are cut.
Peggau remarks that “The United Nations believe[s] that if we accomplish the [17 sustainable development goals], then that would be a perfect world.” However, if greenhouse gas emission rates continue to increase, then the goals of the Paris Agreement will not be met.
“Technology can help society in changing climate conditions,” advises Federigan. “There [could] still be multiple planning workshops to be organized together with the different sectors,” he notes.
“I see a lot of opportunity and potential for humanity to come together and collaborate. We have to lift up our friends across the ocean, we have to lift our impoverished communities across [the globe], and we have to elevate everybody so that everybody is able to benefit from climate mitigation,” Peggau expresses, underscoring that taking action is not possible a one person’s job, but rather a collective global effort.
You are either in or out
The impacts of the destabilization brought about by climate change have profoundly affected the world in terms of economics and agriculture. Its cascading effects have and will bring further precarity to all life on this planet.
Regardless of the detrimental effects of climate change, however, we have not been deterred from taking action against it. Looking past the dangers of climate change, Mahony, Peggau, and Federigan believe that people will and have always responded to threats to humanity’s survival. Everyone must do their part to save the planet we call home—fast.