When the history of this time is written from an underground bunker somewhere, our generation will be remembered as the one that failed the human race. After all, it was on our watch that the climate went to hell in a hand cart whilst we all looked all complicit in its destruction. As the old saying goes: “All it takes for evil to triumph is for a good man to do nothing.”
Envision a world plagued by raging wildfires, blistering heatwaves, punishing super storms, and catastrophic food shortages, and then throw in millions of hungry refugees clashing over dwindling supplies of food and water.
Although this sounds like some apocalyptic vision straight out of Dante’s 6th realm of hell, this is what lies in store for us in the near future. And, by near future, I mean 2040. That’s according to the UN’s latest climate report, the gold standard in global warming reporting.
For anyone who has children, it is a bleak prognosis. A baby born today will only be 22 years old when the world we once knew begins to spiral out of reach.
Speaking at the UN climate talks last December, naturalist David Attenborough warned: “We are facing a manmade disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”
How did we get here?
Every year, our species releases about 40 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It’s a number so large, it’s impossible to imagine, but visualise the world’s largest aircraft carrier and then multiply it by 400,000. In terms of heat generated, it’s like dropping 400,000 Hiroshima sized atom bombs on the planet every single day. (That’s 4 every second.)
Although global warming started over 200 years ago with the dawn of the Industrial Age, more than half of that CO2 has been released in the past 3 decades. That means that climate change has brought us to the brink of collapse within the span of a single generation.
It’s a staggering thought.
Even more staggering is the fact that oil titan Exxon Mobil knew about the horrors its products were unleashing as early as the late 1970’s. But instead of warning the world about its ruinous path, it set up an intricate web of pseudo think tanks in order to discredit the science and protect its bottom line.
The result: Exxon became one of the wealthiest companies on Earth to the detriment of all life on it. According to the World Meteorological Organisation, the planet is now expected to warm by up to five degrees celsius by the turn of this century.
And whilst 5C may not sound like much, when temperatures warmed to that extent 252 million years ago, it melted the world’s permafrost, igniting a carbon time bomb which ended up killing 97% of all life on Earth. According to scientists, this is the future we are fast heading towards.
And, to make matters worse, we are adding carbon to the atmosphere at least 10 times faster today, with the history of this planet revealing that temperatures can move as much as 5C within as little as 13 years.
Given the enormity of the problem, one would presume that governments across the globe would be locked in a supersonic green race determined to save humanity from its upcoming demise. Instead, carbon emissions reached record highs last year whilst America is now run by a notorious climate science skeptic who wants to plunder the Arctic for oil: Enter Donald J Trump.
Even after parts of California were razed to the ground in a blazing inferno owing to drier than normal conditions last year, the US president continued to deny the link to global warming. Weeks earlier, he assured the public not to worry about the matter owing to his “natural instinct” for science.
And in 2016 came his piece de resistance: he pulled the US out of the hard won Paris climate treaty. Given our small window for pulling humanity back from the brink of ruin, the cravenness of this move can not be over stated.
Endorsed by over 190 nations worldwide, the Paris accord was hailed as a historic victory for mankind when it was signed in 2015. After all, after 20 years of squabbling, rich and poor nations alike were able to band together for the sake of posterity: they agreed to limit global warming to 2C with more ambitious aims for 1.5C.
For the first time in years, there was an element of hope for even though the sum total of every nations’ targets was not enough to stave off the worst effects of climate chaos, it marked the opening act to the end of our self-annihilation.
But, with the mere stroke of his pen, Trump may have single handedly altered the fate of our species. After all, if the world’s largest polluter historically is going to shirk its responsibilities, then why shouldn’t everyone else? In fact, the US has already teamed up with fellow petro states Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to water down the accord.
However, we don’t have time for this lunacy. We have already breached the 1C threshold, and as Bill McKibben writes in the New Yorker: “If we miss the 2C target, we will fight to prevent a rise of 3C, and then 4C. It’s a long escalator down to Hell.”
In the past, the planet has witnessed five mass extinction events which have effectively wiped the evolutionary slate clean. And, all of them, except for the asteroid which killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, were caused by climate change.
There are many scientists who now believe that the lifespan of a civilisation may only be a few thousand years, and that of an industrial civilisation such as ours, only a few hundred. The writer David Wallace-Wells wonders whether this is why we have never found intelligent life from other galaxies:
“In a universe that is many billions of years old, with star systems separated as much by time as by space, civilisations might emerge and develop and burn themselves up simply too fast to ever find one another.”
Two years ago, the great cosmologist Stephen Hawking gave humanity a deadline of 100 years before we had to leave the planet. Six months later he warned that “spreading out maybe the only thing that saves us from ourselves as Earth is under threat from so many areas.”
And, even though technology disruptor Elon Musk hopes to colonise Mars in the near future, its surface is too cold to sustain human life whilst its atmosphere is mostly made up CO2. So, our choice is clear: we can either accept our upcoming demise, Or we can rise up and save this beautiful planet that provides us home.
According to the U.N., carbon emissions must reach zero by 2050. And whilst it’s a herculean challenge, it’s far from impossible. When the US joined WWII in 1941, it evolved from a civilian economy into a military one within a matter of months. After all, when there is will, there is a way.
Moreover, we already have all the tools required for this shift: green energy is tipped to become cheaper than fossil fuels within the next 2 years. Plus, 30 years ago, humanity together to heal the ozone layer: we can save our climate too.
However, as abolitionist Frederick Douglas once said: “Power concedes nothing without a fight. It never did and it never will.” The ball is now in our court, with history as our proof that the insurmountable is easier than we think: the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage and the end of apartheid all took place when brave men and women stood up to shatter the status quo.
This time however, the stakes are much higher: the continuation of all life on Earth hangs in the balance. We must not fail. Otherwise, the end of our times will be penned in a bunker somewhere as we join the dinosaurs in the annals of history.