Communities ravaged by hurricanes, farmers losing crops to drought: global warming is already claiming its first victims. If we do not act fast, humanity’s future could be no future at all.
[divider]What our future holds[/divider]
Raging winds and apocalyptic rainstorms have flattened your home. The roads are cracked and useless, bridges lie in ruins and the fields surrounding your city are filled with fruitless, devastated crops. Two months have passed since the typhoonand you are living in a makeshift tent city with hundreds of other climate refugees. What will become of you? Nobody knows.
This is not some melodramatic vision of the distant future: it is the present reality for thousands of people in the Philippines, victims of a record-breaking storm which pummeled the country in December. It killed well over a thousand people, destroyed 216,000 properties and cost the country £1 billion – and it was not a one-off.
The five worst typhoons ever to hit the Philippines have struck in the last 20 years. The cause? Global warming. As we pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, Earth is heating up, changing weather patterns around the world. Humans and the climate are increasingly coming into conflict.
‘It is like a war’, said a Filipino official – and while this group of low-lying, tropical islands are currently the front line, the conflict could soon spread until it engulfs the entire planet.
Every day humans release an extra 90 million tons of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide into the air. These gases trap the sun’s energy, preventing heat from escaping the lower atmosphere, and gradually warming the Earth. The effects are stark: nine of the ten hottest years since records began in the 1880s have occurred in the last decade.
In the next century, Earth could heat by three, four or even five degrees. To some people that might not sound like a big deal; but the potential effects are terrifying.[divider]The consequences[/divider]
Even at the lower limit of global warming predictions, massive upheavals are unavoidable.
Earth’s finely-adapted life forms will find themselves in new, unsuitable environments, leading to the extinction of 20-50% of species. The arid zones to the north and south of the equator will spread, creating mass drought and crop failures. Ice caps will melt and sea levels will rise by a meter or more. Fires and hurricanes will become catastrophically common.
All this will spark an exodus of refugees whose homelands can no longer support them. According to the International Organisation for Migration, climate change could displace 200 million people by 2050. When academics ran a simulation of what might happen in such a scenario, they concluded that the upheaval would ‘overwhelm not just our limited resources but our government, our institutions and our borders.’
Believe it or not, this forecast is actually optimistic. Based on current trends, the planet could become literally uninhabitable. As World Bank chief Jim Yong Kim says: ‘there is no certainty that adaptation to a four degree world is possible.’[divider]For better or worse[/divider]
When futurists describe how the coming centuries might unfold, we are confronted with a daunting and dizzying array of technological, social and political revolutions. But if the planet turns against us, all of these predictions are empty: there will be no future. Unless we slash our carbon emissions now, all that may await us is war, famine, death – and then silence.
But if we forget our disputes, set aside our material ambitions and unite to break our destructive carbon habit, who knows what else we could achieve? By averting climate catastrophe, we can win more than our survival: we can win the right to dream of a better future for humanity.
Anything is possible; but first, we must survive.