It’s hard to say at this stage whether the apocalypse will be televised, but at least we know our gradual descent into living in The Road will be tweeted, every day, by an unassuming Twitter feed ran by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Since 1958, they’ve been measuring the level of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere, based on readings from a remote observatory in Hawaii. You can get an idea of the kind of trajectory we’ve been on since then from the graph below:
Measured in parts per million (ppm), in the late 1950s the figure was around 320ppm. On Thursday 8 May 2013, for the first time in human history, the level of atmospheric carbon broke 400ppm. Suffice to say, this isn’t good news.
The last time there was this much carbon dioxide in the air was 3 million years ago. The planet was a very different place, with the Arctic nearly ice-free, sea levels up to 40m higher than present and global average temperatures 3 – 4 degrees above the current figure. We’re not about to suddenly lurch into this scenario full-on – the oceans, for instance, take a long time to warm up – but it could be sooner than you might think.
What’s unprecedented is the sheer speed at which the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has shot up. The kind of activity shown on the above graph, with CO2 going up by 80ppm in the space of the last few decades, would have taken thousands of years to occur naturally. Current projections of carbon emissions mean by the time this century is out, we could have hit 1000ppm and if that happens, we’re fucked. To summarise, a four degree rise in global temperature would mean drought on 40% of currently inhabited land, the extinction of half of all known species and a sea-level rise of 0.9 – 1.8 metres. Hundreds of millions of climate refugees, extreme weather, water wars, agricultural crisis and food riots seem to be inevitable Oryx and Crake-esque future that we’re facing with a four degree rise. Pretty fun, especially when recent predictions say that by 2100 we could actually be looking at a six degree rise in global average temperature…
2100 doesn’t seem very far away. There’s a chance some people reading this could even still be alive by then, or fall not far short of it, and their children certainly will be. This puts into perspective how urgently the pending climate catastrophe needs to be tackled, primarily by slowing down the rise in global temperatures, currently hurtling towards 2 degrees, and reducing CO2 PPM to a more manageable level – below 350ppm. To achieve this, above all we’ll have to leave most of the currently identified fossil fuel reserves in the ground, which raises a lot of questions for those predicating the economic viability of independence on Scotland’s oil reserves. While Scotland isn’t quite ready to become a ‘transition country’ for a life post-oil yet, it would be foolish to make predictions for the future based on squeezing every last drop of oil from the North Sea. Not unless you want the future to be like The Road anyway.
Unfortunately, any progress that was being made on an international level over the past couple of decades seems to have dissipated and it seems like a long time, the Copenhagen summit in 2009 perhaps, that the climate was anywhere near the top of the political agenda, which given the scale of the disaster we’re facing, is frightening. George Monbiot puts it down to a failure of politics, dominated by monied interests and politicians who “defend those interests against the current and future prospects of humanity”, and calls for reform of political lobbying and financing. I’d go further and argue that systemic exploitation of both the environment and the majority of the world’s population for the purposes of accumulating welath in the hands of very few, is exactly that, systemic, and that to truly get to grips with the climate crisis we need to reshape the world with a dramatic shift in power towards the disadvantaged and dispossessed. Humanity has never faced a test quite like man-made climate change, but all the evidence suggests that those who have the power to take action have no intention of doing so. A case in point: as things stand, energy companies have a stock-market value based on on their total future energy reserves – ie. what they have held underground. But to meet current emission targets, a lot of this carbon should be ‘unburnable’. As The Economist puts it…
Either governments are not serious about climate change or fossil-fuel firms are overvalued
Which do you reckon’s the case?
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