The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and is a growing threat to society.” – Statement on Climate Change from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2006).

In recent years, the growing damage to wild ecosystems, loss of biodiversity, higher frequency of natural disasters, and continued depletion of natural resources has increased public awareness of the detrimental impact that humans have on the environment. Climate change has been heavily featured in popular media, often accompanied by apocalyptic warnings. However, several questions remain. Are we really heading towards such a destructive future? What will be the long-term consequences of our actions? Is it possible for us to undo the damage that has already been done? In this issue of IMMpress, we will take a deep dive into the topic of climate change in order to determine exactly what kind of impact we, as humans, have had on our plant thus far, as well as address some common misconceptions surrounding this issue.

Among climate scientists, it is a well-accepted fact that planet Earth is warming up at an exceedingly alarming rate, well beyond historical planetary fluctuations and variations due to the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. Since the late 19th century, the global temperature has risen by 0.9°C, with the five warmest years on record taking place since 2010. The emission of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, which are generated during fossil fuel combustion, intensive agriculture, and livestock farming, has been well-acknowledged by scientists to be one of the major causes of this increase in temperature. With their unique chemical structures and properties, greenhouse gases are capable of absorbing high amounts of infrared solar radiation. As their concentration increases, the Earth’s atmosphere absorbs and retains more and more of this solar energy, which is then radiated downward to the Earth’s surface and eventually leads to the heating of the planet. This global temperature increase has been associated with many large ecological changes to our planet. For example, the rise in global sea temperature and increase in oceanic acidity has been directly attributed to the accumulation of greenhouses gases in the atmosphere. These two changes to our oceans have resulted in the loss of several large tropical reefs in Australia and the Caribbean. In a 2012 study (Nature Climate Change), K. Frieler et al. concluded that the very existence of coral reefs may be in jeopardy, even if we are able to limit global planetary warming to 2°C. Coral reefs represent one of the most diverse and important ecological habitats on our planet, and their loss could have a severe impact on both marine and terrestrial ecosystems. This loss of biodiversity represents just one of the many global ecological changes that scientists have observed as our planet continues to warm.

Scientific evidence for warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” – The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report (2007).

Another key consequence of climate change is its impact on the Earth’s water cycle. Increasing global temperatures have greatly increased the levels of water evaporation, resulting in unusually high levels of water vapour in the atmosphere. This has altered rainfall patterns, leaving some areas with severe drought, while hitting others with intense hurricanes and floods. In the spring of 2018, in Cape Town, South Africa, residents faced an extreme water crisis with the city counting down the days to Day Zero, when water taps would run dry. The state of California has also faced a similar water shortage, sparking water conservation efforts. On the other end of the spectrum, this past summer Japan has experienced severe torrential rain-fall, resulting in several disastrous floods and landslides, which have resulted in at least 200 deaths. Similarly, regions of the Eastern US, such as New York and North Carolina also saw increases in flooding and precipitation. These droughts and floods have adversely affected millions of people, damaging homes, leaving many without power, and taken many lives.

Aside from alterations to the water cycle, this past year has also been the host of several unusual heat waves in many parts of the world. In July of 2018, Japan suffered from the deadliest heat wave it has witnessed in decades (41.1°C in the hottest city), leaving at least 90 dead and thousands injured. Similarly, this past summer Quebec was hit with a severe heat wave that result-ed in over 70 deaths. These heat waves have also been associated with sweeping wildfires. Several regions in Europe saw increased incidence of wildfires. Greece, in particular, was heavily affected by these fires, with over 80 deaths recorded as firefighters and volunteers battled the spreading flames. The states of California, Nevada, and Arizona have also experienced several deadly wildfires this past year. Not only do these fires pose a substantial threat to human life and property, but they also cause significant economic damage to affected areas. The state of California alone has spent over $230 million USD in July alone to just combat and control the wildfires. While these social and economic burdens will only continue to increase in the future, most countries still do not have, or are not strictly following environmental reforms to address excessive greenhouse gas emission and environmental pollution.

Despite strong scientific evidence, it has been difficult to persuade government officials, corporate leaders, and investors to consider the impact of greenhouse gas emissions in policy and economic decisions. It is a hard task to persuade someone to give up short-term profits for long-term environmental protection. One can predict the reason why it would be difficult to easily persuade many of these individuals: why should government or industry make economic sacrifices for a problem that is ambiguous and has no immediate impact? Unfortunately, for those holding economic or political power, time is running out. In the past two years alone, we have witnessed increased and intensified extreme weather and natural disasters as a result of the changing climate, resulting in great social and economic losses.

When Science clashed with Politics

The idea of climate change and the threat of global warming is not a new scientific field. In fact, most of our current knowledge of the science of global warming and the effect of greenhouse gas emissions was well understood as far back as 1979. In more recent years, the climate science community has shifted its research focus from “Is global warming real?” to “How can we counter global warming?”. Despite strong scientific evidence, including thousands of publications in scientific journals, little progress has been made to convince Western policy makers of the importance of greenhouse gas regulation and environmental conservation. Large climate and environment summits have been held, which have included many world leaders, and in some cases climate treaties have been signed – yet for the most part, these treaties have gone unfollowed. In many cases, the implementation of these treaties is hindered by tension and disputes between countries. In 1992, the United Nations initiated the signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) treaty, a framework to guide how future international treaties should limit carbon emission and combat global warming. Under the guidance of UNFCCC, a series of protocols and agreements have been drafted. In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in Kyoto, Japan aiming to reduce global emission of carbon dioxide. The Kyoto Protocol acknowledges that more developed nations have historically been responsible for the most greenhouse gas emissions, and have more economic, technological, and social capacity to combat climate change; therefore, it urges large developed nations like the United States (US) to lead the battle against climate change, while putting less pressure on less developed nations. Not surprisingly, this intensified disputes between international parties, and the treaty was largely disregarded. The US did not ratify, and Canada withdrew from it in 2012. In 2015, another climate summit was held in Paris, France in attempt to once again address the issue of global warming and reach the goal of UNFCCC. This culminated in 195 countries signing the Paris Agreement, which brought forth several environmental reforms and has the goal of limiting global warming to less than 1.5°C. However, On June 2nd 2017, President Trump announced that the US would terminate its participation in the Paris Agreement due to its high “economic burden”. Without the participation and leadership of the world’s largest economic power, the effectiveness of the Paris Agreement has been seriously weakened.

Do we have a problem? We do, but it is not the atmospheric problem. It is the political problem.” – Anthony Scoville, Congressional Science Consultant.

Besides disputes between nations, hurdles also come from within many countries. In China, despite the majority of the public accepting the idea of climate change and global warming, there is disagreement on how severe it is and whether or not some level of economic growth should be sacrificed in order to reduce pollution. In the US, the topic of climate change has long been utilized by many political parties to suit their political purpose. In a 2016 study by Yale University on climate change communication, 65% of Democrats strongly believed that global warming is caused mostly by human activities, while only 31% of Republicans believed so. This division between the public and governmental officials has hampered most action towards combating climate change. In fact, with the current president of the US and leaders in the Environmental Protection Agency having long voiced skepticism about climate change, we have witnessed numerous decisions aimed at reversing environmental protection rules, key amongst them being the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the revival of the coal industry, and commitment to the Keystone XL pipeline.

What is the future going to be?

This past summer, a large summit was held in Incheon, South Korea that included many of the world leaders on climate change research, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and United Nations (UN), with a focus on evaluating the benefits and feasibility of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. This meeting emphasized that in order to preserve valuable ecosystems, biodiversity, natural resources, and avoid further economic and social damages, it is absolutely necessary to limit global planetary warming to below 1.5°C. To achieve this goal, we must reach zero emissions by 2050. Likewise, in a recent study published in Nature, Patrick Brown and Ken Caldeira (Carnegie Mellon) concluded that with the current trend of greenhouse emission, steeper greenhouse gas emission reduction than previously calculated would have to be immediately adopted in order to achieve current goals. All things considered, it seems that the odds of stopping the warming at 2°C are very slim, let alone stopping at 1.5°C. So, what does the future hold in store for humanity?

1.5°C – Severe heat waves on land, more extreme storms, temperature increase of at least 3°C on hot days in mid-latitude region, ice-free summers for the Arctic once in a century, preservation of only 10-30% of coral reefs.  

2°C – More extreme natural events, destruction of the ecosystem on around 13% of the land area, more species extinctions, ice-free summers for the Arctic once every decade or two, complete destruction of coral reefs.

3°C – More exacerbated and frequent natural disasters, flooding and submerging of most of coastal cities, especially in Asia. Regional instabilities for scarce natural resources, climate refugees and massive environmental migration. Decrease in agricultural production and starvation.

4°C – Permanent drought in Europe, vast regions in South Asia, like China and India, turning into desert. The majority of coastal cities will be swallowed by the sea and South America becomes uninhabitable.

5°C – End game, extinction of human civilization.

We did not seriously consider the prospect of failure, but we have not allowed ourselves to comprehend what failure might mean for us.” – Nathaniel Rich, “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change”, The New York Times.

While more and more countries announce reforms aimed at environmental preservation and emission limitation, few are actually on track to meet the Paris Agreement commitments. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is an extreme economic burden for many nations. More developed countries will have to completely halve their emissions in the next decade, whilst beginning to switch to other cleaner and more sustainable energy sources. The citizens of developed nations may need to completely alter their lifestyles if these goals were to be met. Less developed nations may struggle between to balance the urgency of further economic development, providing enough food for their people, and their commitment to reducing carbon emissions. Many smaller and less developed nations will not have the infrastructure or economy capable of meeting these environmental reforms and must find their own way of sustainable development.

If we really want to preserve our beautiful planet, humans, as a species, must come to an agreement and be willing to make short term sacrifices, and we must act fast, as the damage is already being done. At the individual level, we could start to live more eco-friendly lives by making small changes, such as choosing locally-grown groceries, consuming fewer meat products, and most importantly recycling. In terms of the bigger picture, although we have no individual control over what policies are currently being enacted by governmental officials, we can always vote for more environmentally concerned and scientifically aware officials. As a Chinese proverb states: “A little spark kindles a great fire”. If every one of us were to make an effort to reduce our carbon footprint, we would still have a chance to preserve most of the Earth’s ecosystems and natural beauty for our grandchildren and the future of humanity to enjoy.

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Mengdi Guo

Mengdi is a PhD student in the Department of Immunology, University of Toronto. She is interested in reading, learning new knowledge and writing.

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