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I know all of us can’t wait to put the dumpster-fire that is 2020 behind us and heave a big sigh of relief in 2021. But does a change of date mean a change of circumstances?
Yes, absolutely, but read on.
Creative illustration by Alexander Radtke, visualising the past and future annual mean temperature anomalies from year 1850 as stripes where the color represents how hot it could get(9°C) by 2200. The fork represents the outcomes of immediate and adequate climate action(top, RCP 2.6) and no climate policies scenario(bottom, RCP 8.5).
Unfortunately for us, it won’t change for good but it will take a turn for the worse. Strangely but not surprisingly, 2020 will be both one of the hottest so far and one of the coldest in this century! That all this is happening is not the surprise, but just that this is happening already is of big concern. It is as if an invisible crank has been turned up, ratcheting up all disasters to suddenly become much higher in both scale and intensity resulting in impacts that were not expected for a couple of more years at least. Needless to say, 2020 has been an eye-opener of a year to all those who were blind to the urgency of climate crisis. Before I give you the reasons for why it’s going to get worse, let’s do a quick roundup of damning developments in 2020.
Records broken in 2020:
Earth reached its hottest reliably recorded temperature ever at 54.4°C in Death Valley, USA on August 16, 2020 [*].
The 2020 Atlantic Hurricane season was so intense and active that the World Meteorological Organization has run out of names, only second time on record [*].
A Siberian town in Arctic recorded its highest temperature ever of 38°C on 20 June 2020, all of 18°C higher than the average maximum daily temperature in June [*].
Africa and Asia were battered by record setting rainfall and flooding[*].
The Arctic had such a warm summer that it had a record melt season, bringing the Arctic sea ice expanse to a 2nd lowest minimum in its 42-year satellite observation history.[*]
Earth reached its highest carbon dioxide CO2 concentration ever in May 2020[*]!
July 2019 - June 2020 tied as the hottest 12-month period ever on record with August 2015-September 2016 period.[*]
Northern hemisphere had its hottest summer(Jun-Jul-Aug 2020) ever![*]
Record setting locust invasion plagued Africa, Middle East and parts of Asia through 2018-19, peaking in 2020 as of now[*].
A lot of other heat and rainfall records must be broken in southern hemisphere too but I can’t find consolidated data anywhere because no one is extra bothered about the poor Global South.
Meanwhile, climate science and our understanding of how climate responds to warming also increased by a lot this year, some important updates here-
We now know the climate is much more sensitive to carbon dioxide than we had estimated earlier[*].
We also know that the record Siberian heatwave was unequivocally made possible by human caused emissions, by 600%[*]!
We know that the glacial lakes have increased by 50% in volume in the last 30 years due to global warming[*].
We know that the Arctic ice has disintegrated so much that it is forming a new climate system[*]
Now the question is, what do we infer from all these events and scientific studies?
That the world is catastrophically warming and we may have crossed some invisible tipping points that’s causing a sudden spike and acceleration in the intensity and frequency of climate disasters in 2020. If the answer to the question of what will happen if the world warms seemed intangible and vague, 2020 is a glimpse. All the catastrophes were both accelerated and amplified by climate change.
The last time arctic sea ice was at record minimum was 2012[*]. The last time Atlantic hurricane season was this active was 2005[*]. The last reliable heat temperature record was set in 2017[*]. The last time the Siberian town was this hot was in 1998[*]. That all these record setting events are happening concurrently in 2020 is our new reality. It’s going to take centuries for the climate to stabilise after whenever our greenhouse gas emissions stop. More records will be broken in the coming years and such records mean nothing now because we are in a human-altered climate system that’s in flux.
It remains to be seen whether 2020 was a significant outlier or a part of the larger trend pointing to drastic alteration of earth’s climate system as expected. Given the current circumstances and information we have, 2020 could very well be one of the better years of this century because things are going to get significantly worse.
I say that for four reasons -
1. It’s getting properly hot and there’s no stopping it!
Despite the coronavirus lockdown that brought the world to a temporary standstill and this not being an El Niño year, 2020 is on its course to becoming the hottest year so far[*]. This is particularly worrisome because 2016, that is the hottest year so far in 137 years of record keeping[*], was so hot because of a strong El Niño amplification effect[*]. Without getting into the fine specifics of this naturally occurring phenomenon, just remember that in any given decade, the warmest years are usually El Niño ones, and the coldest are usually La Niña ones[*]. And 2020 was as hot despite the lack of El Niño for the first three quarters of the year[*] and onset of La Niña in the last quarter, signalling a rapid escalation in global mean temperature.
The astonishing heat of 2020 and the worrying rapid intensification of the heating trend can be seen in the two graphics below.
Would you look at 2020 and the last five years! This graphic shows the monthly temperature anomalies deviating from the average mean temperatures calculated over 1951-1980 baseline. Source: Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions (CSAS), Columbia University Earth Institute[*]
While more intense heatwaves are the usual associated outcomes of rising temperatures, it is important to remember that when oceans get heated, continents get pummelled with more intense rainfall and abnormal cyclonic activity. We saw a glimpse of this in 2020 when both cyclonic activity and extreme rainfall on an unprecedented scale battered many countries in southern hemisphere. (Did you know oceans have absorbed 90% of the current heat btw?*)
Within a 1.1/1.2°C global warming that has been locked in so far, we are seeing record heat, rainfall, cyclones and other associated outcomes like locust plagues, seasonal shifts, flooding, wildfires, massive ice sheet disintegration, flora and fauna range shifts etc. Seeing what 1.1°C warming is doing to our planet and ecosystem in 2020, it is not that hard to imagine the horrors of 1.5°C or 2°C warming. But, those two are our absolute best case scenarios and even then we’re up against a lot.
“In our research, we’ve found that most systems can cope with a 1.5-degree or two-degree world, although it will be very costly and extremely difficult to adapt,” said Dr. Hayhoe of Texas Tech University. “But in a four-degree world, in many cases, the system just doesn’t work anymore.” - as told to New York Times.
Unfortunately for us, we are not even remotely on track to achieving those “still bad but better than worst” targets as of now. We have a good chance of reaching 1.5°C in the next decade at this rate and easily 3 to 4°C warming by 2100 as per our current emissions, which brings me to the next point below.
2. Even if we stop emissions right now, climate isn’t going to stabilise immediately
As a thought experiment, let’s consider what happens if we magically stop emissions right now. The world will continue to warm for decades till an equilibrium state is achieved[*]. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for hundreds to thousands of years until it is artificially removed or naturally absorbed back into the land or ocean system. This means the greenhouse effect will be locked in place for decades and will interfere with the earth’s climate system till it stabilises (when the distribution of extra heat between the earth’s atmosphere and land + ocean reaches an equilibrium). This means continued disruptions for us until all climate feedbacks have run their course. While this happens, the heat will cause continued disintegration/reorganisation of our biosphere & ecosystem till the the climate equilibrates, i.e. the climate & physical environment becomes largely stable and predictable, and remains so.
“The human capacity for adaptation is extraordinary — not unlimited, but extraordinary,” said Greg Garrard, professor of environmental humanities at the University of British Columbia. He added, “I’m much more concerned for the future of the nonhuman than I am for the future of humans, precisely because we’re just very, very good at adaptation.” - as told to New York Times.
However, the world is showing no signs of slowing down emissions right now. Since the first IPCC report came 30 years ago that officially warned us that greenhouse emissions will cause warming, global emissions have grown by over 60%[*]. Since Paris Agreement was signed in 2015 where we officially decided to reduce emissions to limit warming to 1.5°C, global emissions have gone up by 4% in 2019[*]. Simply put, emissions are not going down anytime soon and neither is warming and associated climate changes for a century at the very least till the climate starts stabilising.
3. The big unknown : Tipping points and Feedback loops!
Positive feedback loops, in simpler terms, is a monster that feeds on itself to grow bigger. Let’s take the permafrost for example. Global warming thaws the permafrost releasing methane into the atmosphere that causes more warming that causes more thawing of the permafrost that releases more methane into the atmosphere, and the cycle continues on without disruption or needing any additional external push. This is an example of a positive feedback.
Melting ice is a positive feedback loop, where more the ice melts, more heat is absorbed by exposed land or ocean causing more warming that in turn melts more ice and the cycle continues till ice is disintegrated completely. As are wildfires raging through forests that are supposed to be carbon sinks, where warming creates perfect conditions for more wildfires to happen that release more CO2 into the atmosphere that causes more warming that causes more wildfires till the forests dieback. Once such processes begin, they quickly accelerate and could become irreversible or unstoppable when they cross a tipping point. And positive feedback loops can greatly accelerate the time and pathway to reaching the tipping point.
Climate Tipping Points[*] are like the highest points of roller coasters, there’s resistance only till you reach the top of the track, after which it is freefall. It is not necessary that only a feedback loop leads to breaching tipping points, just warming is also enough to accelerate the changes that will push the system over the limit.
However, the inherent uncertainty in knowing exactly when we hit a tipping point makes it impossible to accurately pinpoint when the proverbial shit hits the fan. We cannot be sure that this degree of warming will lead to the breaching of this tipping point, so we’re literally in the dark here. This makes a strong case for rapid emission reductions than court danger by optimistically marching towards the invisible cliff edge. However, as of now, you guessed it, we are well on our way to the deep gorge[*].
4. Human cavalierness & colossal inaction
We are simply not doing enough to limit global warming, not even nearly adequate to doing what’s required. Our current global plan is to continue burning fossil fuels till 2050, for 30 more years! However, seeing the catastrophic impacts of global warming in 2020, how can we possibly assume 30 more years of fossil fuel burning and pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere would be remotely okay or even manageable?
I know at this point, you may seem compelled to ask but how can we decarbonise rapidly given there is no 100% replacement energy sources and implementation technology yet? But that’s the impossible challenge we’ve set ourselves up against and we need to innovate now. The best time for climate action was 30 years ago, when the first IPCC report came out. The next best was 20 years ago. Even 10 years ago would’ve been so much better. But the developed world and its political leaders have been dragging their feet on this problem, leaving it for their consecutive successors to deal with. Three decades of such denial and dithering got the whole world here today.
The last IPCC report in 2018 gave us an ambitious timeline of 12 years till 2030 to have a reasonable shot at fixing this crisis with maximum action to have minimum damages[*]. Here’s the kicker though, even if countries reduce emissions as per their current Paris Agreement climate pledges, we’re still going to see over 3°C of warming[*]! Not only have we pledged inadequate climate action targets, we are not even on track to meeting those already insufficient targets.
This is not to say some people, organisations and governments aren’t doing their best within their abilities and resources to tackle climate change. Without discrediting those efforts, unfortunately for us, climate change is a Sisyphean task that needs all hands on deck if we’re to ever push the boulder all the way to the top of the hill. And right now, we’re falling dangerously short of that target.
And that’s why, dear reader, 2020 will be one of the better years this century because things are about to get a lot worse!
(Andrew Dessler is a climate scientist and Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M University)
Seeing how things suddenly & catastrophically escalated in 2020, I’m inclined to say we don’t have the luxury of time anymore, especially because it seems some climate feedbacks have accelerated, causing some parts of our climate system to spiral out of control. Scientists suspect this too; Tim Lenton, a professor of Climate Change and Earth System Science at the University of Exeter, said this speaking to Financial Times[*] -
“It is not just this year’s evidence but a decade of evidence that leads me to the view that we may have passed one or two tipping points already in the climate system,”
Whether the future years will be a little bit worse or a lot worse than today is completely contingent upon how fast we act to reduce emissions, how effectively we reduce emissions and the earth not hitting any more major tipping points[*].
If you are alarmed by all this, don’t worry, that’s the right reaction. I have provided references to everything I’ve said here. I’m not overly exaggerating or needlessly extrapolating here. This is the state of things currently and it worries me endlessly too. However, confronting this harsh truth is necessary since both climate change and biodiversity loss are accelerating rapidly, much faster than we can adapt to it. So even though it may seem like too much to handle, it is absolutely necessary we engage with this fear and grief and innovate as best as we can.
But what do we do with this fear and grief?
The science has been clear for 30 years now but the politics hasn’t ever taken it seriously enough. It’s been decades and the same old bickering and outdated thinking dominates the climate conversation even today. Climate scientists are sounding off alarm after alarm, the youth are striking begging that their future not be destroyed, activists are demanding stronger and faster climate action. But the leaders and policy makers are still dragging their feet as if we have time.
“I feel like the climate scientists have kind of done our job,” said Dr. Kalmus, the Los Angeles-based scientist. “We’ve laid it out pretty clearly, but nobody’s doing anything. So now it’s kind of up to the social scientists.” - as told to New York Times.
People in power seem to think it is still not a problem that requires radical transformation, bold imagination and innovative thinking. It is rather infuriating to see the same tired arguments in favour of fossil-fuel powered economy and development play out year after year without considering the recent expedited changes in our climate system. And that is where the fight is— in rejecting those outdated ideas that have no place in a rapidly warming world and making those in power take climate change seriously with the required urgency.
I can’t say it’s going to get better because it won’t. But we still have an opportunity to make the future much less worse than it can be. Granted, it’s a moonshot but that’s all we have at this point and let’s take that chance.
And if this is getting too depressing, I leave you with these wise words from a wizard.
— The Fellowship of the Ring, J. R. R. Tolkien
Important disclaimer: For the record, I should tell you that I’m not a Climate Scientist or Academic Researcher in any capacity. However, I am an independent journalist and I am fairly good at research and, more importantly, asking the right questions. I obsessively read about climate change and follow the latest studies, so I do know what I’m talking about. Here in this publication, I’m consolidating the science, studies and latest updates to the best of my knowledge to present information in an easy to consume format for the general public. I have referenced all the important claims marked with *. If I got something wrong, do let me know so I can correct it.
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