Global Impact: A 10-Year Ultimatum To Fend Off Climate Change


The majority of apocalyptic stories open with some kind of impending ultimatum. Some date, some target, some action, that marks the end of life as the protagonists know it. That’s all well and good until the drama moves past the silver screen or the pages of a novel, and unfolds within the fabric of our own reality. On Oct. 8, the world received one such promise of doom, as the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) declared that humanity has only ten years to “get climate change under control,” or be faced with irreversibly destructive environmental changes.

Most ultimatums, however, do not stack on top of the misshapen pillars of others past. An ultimatum of this sort, all in all, had already existed. The 2015 Paris Accords, as a matter of fact, worked under the assumption that anything above a 2-degree warming over pre-industrial levels by the turn of the century (2100) would prove, once more, irreversibly catastrophic for our environment. For that reason, the Unitarian goal that followed all nations past Paris was to enforce policies oriented towards maintaining that increase below 2 degrees.  Some odd three years later, with no significant indicator of decreasing global emissions and the United States pulled forcefully away from participation in the Paris Agreement, the protagonists’ chances of rising to the task appear rather bleak if not discouraging. The newest report presented by the IPCC and announced by the U.N. (as displayed below) rings a new, unheard set of alarms, in an attempt to usher in a more impactful, more immediate, more formal kind of ultimatum. That is exactly what has been produced, stacking on top of the previous in a concerto that screams for the world’s attention.

The newest, extensively peer-reviewed IPCC report, authored by over 130 illustrious academics and presenting more than 6,000 references, has effectively rolled back the magic number presented in Paris, from a 2-degree rise, to a 1.5-degree rise. Essentially, scientists now infer that anything above a 1.5-degree rise, would prove equally as catastrophic as they had previously considered being the case with a 2-degree rise. On paper, that might seem a technical, if not arbitrary difference. For our planet (and its inhabitants, of course), that difference is beyond meaningful. “Warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius or higher increases the risk associated with long-lasting or irreversible changes, like the compete loss of some ecosystems,” warns Hans-Otto Pornter, co-chair of the IPCC. Environments like the world’s vibrant coral reefs are projected to lose 70-90 percent, in a 1.5-degree warming scenario. A 2-degree Celsius warming scenario, the report newly infers, would see them wiped out in their entirety. Just the same way, the IPCC projects that a 1.5-degree warming as compared to a 2-degree warming would translate to a 0.1 -meter difference in sea levels. Though that might once more seem small, it further translates to a fewer ten million people left at the mercy of coastal displacement and flooding. Though the report itself presents an infinitely more holistic forecast, its message becomes clear relatively quickly: we must do better, live at a higher standard than even the Paris agreements asked of us. 

Problem is, average global temperatures have already hit the 1 degree mark and are set to touch 1.5 between 2030 and 2052 (when it should be in 2100). Current projections estimate a warming of three to four degrees by 2100. Though we are extremely off-pace, limiting warming to this fabled 1.5-degree mark, is within the realm of chemical and physical possibility. If carbon-dioxide emissions were to cease tomorrow, for example, we would not reach those temperatures. In a noble attempt to find some ground in between, the IPCC writes that, in order to come close to reaching our target, human CO2 emissions have to already be on an “extremely downward path” by 2030. That is to say, our emissions need to have already been constantly decreasing for a while. Today, in October 2018, we have yet to see any sign of emissions decreasing. 

What the Nobel peace-prize winning panel calls for, then, is a set of intricate and complicated policies that the world must embark upon in the near future to avoid such a catastrophic overshoot in temperatures. By 2050, carbon dioxide emissions must either equal to zero or exist in a net-zero situation, where we manage to remove as much carbon dioxide as we put into the air. However, on top of finding ourselves unmistakably off-target, the technologies and policies required for “negative emissions” (the removal of carbon dioxide from the air) are anything but polished. Policies for negative emissions, like the reforestation of farmland, are difficult to enforce and will become increasingly difficult as the human population grows in the coming years. Innovative technologies are untested on a large-scale, and far from ready for commercial adoption. Naturally, and to an extent logical and rightfully, representatives from numerous different governments have expressed the apparent unfeasibility and unimaginable cost of these kinds of operations. The IPCC calls on all sectors and all countries must act: a call to arms perhaps far too ambitious to gain any traction amongst lobbyists. 

To effect change, the IPCC calls on every cog in the giant machine of humanity to work towards the unified goal. Reliance on renewable energy sources like wind and solar power must double, while coal and gas plants must work with new carbon capture and storage technologies to prevent emissions. The transportation sector must move towards the electric. The IPCC calls for an immensely difficult, encompassing global movement, touching from policy to individual, to set humanity back upon the right environmental path, as evident from their announcement press conference below. The technical, political and social aspects must all come together in an elaborate, collaborative dance that is unapologetically utopian, even for the illustrious panel of nobel laureates. 

Strangely, however, this perhaps slightly fatalistic discussion does not come without a silver lining. In discussing our “carbon budget”, that is, the amount of carbon dioxide we can emit while retaining the positive possibility of an increase below 1.5 degrees, has increased since its 2013 forecasts. To retain two-out-of-three odds of staying below a 1.5-degree gap, we can pump out ten to fourteen more years of current emissions, but no more, that is to say, we have ten years to act, to orient every cog within our global machine towards the ideal “net-zero”. 

With this strange silver lining, we shift the doomsday clock’s minute hand back just a handful of clicks. There exists a target perhaps more difficult than the one we originally had, but with it, there exists a little more leeway for proper pre-emptive action. The silver lining here, then, is the actual ultimatum itself. It resides in having the time to rectify our actions and embark on a path of correction, no matter how ambitious, difficult, or utopian it may seem.